Internet Censorship in the UK

Today’s post will be a little different from my normal light-hearted style, but it’s something that needs to be addressed. This post is quite long, so I’ve included a summary at the bottom for the TL,DR folks.

Internet Censorship

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, recently announced his plans to enforce a country-wide filter on the UK’s internet at the ISP level. I’ve been fuming about this for days, and decided finally to post my thoughts explaining why this is a terrible idea. Firstly though, what exactly does he hope to achieve?

The PM wants to filter the internet to ‘protect the children’ from things such as pornographic content and self-harm websites. As I’ll explain below, while (if indeed this is even the true intention of the filter) protecting children is important, it is a deeply flawed and dangerous system.

The PM has used a potentially questionable tactic to boost the appeal of this announcement. By highlighting the importance of ‘protecting children’ and leaning heavily on the pornography aspect, he’s white-knighting the proposal while setting up opponents to the filter for character assassination. After all, who would be willing to stand up and say ‘actually, I don’t care about protecting children, I just want my porn’, and more importantly, who would then take that person seriously?

The true impact of this filtering is being hidden by the supposed benefits of protecting the children from the internet.

The implications of this ill-thought out filter are far more serious than reported, as I’ll discuss further below.

Opt-Out Filtering

The proposal would require every ISP to filter the web for it’s customers by default, with an option to opt-out of it. This bothers me greatly. If the country credits us with the intelligence to vote or fight (and possibly die) for our country if we so choose why, then, are they saying we can’t make intelligent decisions about how we use the ‘net.

Secondly, opting out rather than opting-in is a dangerous situation. What happens when, heaven forbid, the list of people who have opted out of the filter gets leaked. Will we see high-ranking public figures ‘shamed’ for their choice to have an unrestricted internet? Will they be blackmailed to prevent the inevitable media stories and speculation of what they’re up to on their dirty, unclean internet.

More worryingly for average customers, I’m no conspiracy theorist, but given the recent developments regarding spying, I wouldn’t be surprised if those on the ‘opt out’ list ended up being more high-profile targets for monitoring.

Protecting Children

It exasperates me that the main purpose of this is to ‘protect children’ from the evils of the internet such as pornography and predators. The notion that the govt. is better at protecting your children online than you are would infuriate me if I were a parent. Also, there already exist more effective (as I’ll explain below) means of filtering the content a child sees online available for parents to use.

Unenforceable Filtering

What makes this whole mess worse is that the very notion is laughably unworkable. The nature of the internet means that the system simply cannot function as intended. It is unenforceable and easily circumvented.

Take the well-known file sharing site thepiratebay for example. The court ordered that UK ISPs block the site last year. After just a week of the block being implemented, the traffic levels on the site returned to normal. It’s a trivial matter to circumvent a block such as this. While piracy, like protecting children, is a concern, filtering is not an effective means to combat it. It is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.

Worse still, the system will hurt legitimate websites. As paraphrased from this post on Reddit, the system will, inevitably, make mistakes. A conservative margin of error of just 5% would mean that nearly 200 million sites would be misclassified – both legitimate websites undeservedly blocked, and sites the filter is supposed to catch let through.

A hundred-million odd potential pornographic sites that are supposed to be blocked from children that aren’t.

A hundred-million odd legitimate websites, blocked for an entire country.

The second one bothers me more than the first. Obviously, the system won’t work to prevent what it’s supposed to. If the children are unsupervised by parents while online, they can, and will, see things they shouldn’t. What bothers me more though, is the second.

What happens to these falsely blocked websites. If they’re just information that’s bad enough on a philosophical point, but what if they’re businesses that rely on UK traffic for their survival. The potential loss of revenue to a miss-classified site from this stupid plan as a self-employed individual involved in online commerce is painful and deeply worrying.

Blocking of self-harm websites has also been mentioned. The issue I have with this is that computers cannot easily understand context. Blocking information and support sites for individuals seeking help would be a real possibility.

Expensive Waste of Money

As I’ve mentioned, the system is flawed and easily bypassed. That’s just simply the nature of how the internet works. Spending hundreds of millions of pounds of the taxpayers money on a system that doesn’t work is a ludicrous notion for a country in debt and struggling with a global economic crisis.

The consumer will be affected too. Filtering can slow down the internet for the end-user, depending on how it is implemented. If ISPs have to enforce filtering on all it’s customers, you can be sure that any additional cost incurred is passed to the consumer.

So this filter sets the consumer up for a potentially slower, more expensive and restricted internet for, at best, limited results.

More Effective Measures Already Exist

Internet filtering is nothing new. If parents want to protect their children, then there are already a number of effective measures they can employ that don’t hurt everyone else. Filtering of content is already available as an opt-in option from ISPs. Additionally, you can enable filtering on most home routers, and browsers too have options to protect your children. Enabling these requires very little computer literacy.

There is no fix-all solution to protecting children online. The most effective thing for a parent is to be active in their role. If a child is young enough to be vulnerable online, parents should supervise their activity and more importantly, educate their children about the real dangers the internet poses.

An informed individual is a more effective defense than an abusable system that hurts everybody.

Thin End of a Thick Wedge

There exists another worrying possibility. Once a country-wide filter is in place, it opens up the possibility for abusing and exploiting the system by the government. Quietly slipping in more censorship is a real possibility.

We do not want a situation like the Chinese govt. (which allegedly has ties with the company that provides filtering to TalkTalk) where any site that criticises the govt. is silently blocked. We may be far from that prospect today, but if this filtering goes into effect, it is the first step on a slippery slope.

Summary

If you are against any of the following:

  • Loss of freedom to make your own intelligent decisions for using the ‘net
  • An abusable, ill-conceived and fundamentally flawed system
  • Potential issues arising from being named on an opt-out list
  • Wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer pounds on a system that cannot work
  • slower, yet more expensive internet services
  • Giving a foothold to the government for arbitrary censorship
  • Putting the entire country’s internet infrastructure in the hands of one Chinese company
  • An excuse for parents to not protect their children online, relying instead on a system that does not work – exposing more children to harm

If you are against any of these, then take action! The simplest thing to do is to sign this petition. Raise awareness of the issue, talk to people about it. If your freedom to choose is important to you, then this needs to be stamped out now.

I’m not normally very actively involved in politics, but this is one time where I can’t sit idly by and watch as the most amazing, awe-inspiring wonder of the modern world is crippled by uninformed politicians stripping away our rights as individuals.

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