The Flawed War On Internet Porn

It appears that prime minister David Cameron has finally got his much-longed for ability to censor the internet. The announcement, expected later today, will outline new measures for every household in the UK to have access to pornography blocked unless they choose to receive it.

Breathtaking stupidity

Two excellent articles from Tom Meltzer in the Guardian and Mic Wright in the Telegraph and this morning point out what everyone who knows the slightest thing about the internet already knows – that the policy displays a breathtaking level of technical ignorance and is propaganda at its very worst.

On the face of it, the policy claims to protect children, after all, who can argue with that? Anyone with a moral crusade can use the time-worn defence of holding up the shield of children as a kind of final word in the argument. At best it’s disingenuous and at worst it’s a cynical exploitation of public paranoia fed by misinformation and hysterical reporting from the likes of the Daily Mail. The government has seized on recent press over Google’s tax affairs and taken an opportunity to hold them up for public scrutiny over an unrelated issue. Who knows, perhaps we could see Amazon being targeted next for selling erotica in its bookshop – after all, children might see it.

Won’t someone think of the parents?

And where’s the parental responsibility in all this? How has it become the government’s job to set parental controls on the browsing habits of the nation’s children? If parents are too complacent or too incompetent to restrict their child’s browsing then an ISP control is unlikely to help. A parent of my acquaintance, when offered parental controls for the laptops of her children, both under 12, said, ‘No, I can’t be bothered and they’ll find out about sex anyway so it’s better if they see it on the internet rather than in the playground’. Well, OK then. As Meltzer puts it:

The ISPs make three arguments against default-on. First, that it encourages parents to be complacent about their children’s internet use. Second, that filters are imperfect. Third, that children are smart enough to find their way around filters anyway. All are sound. The third, in particular, is hard to argue with, since any default-on system needs to be simple enough for a stupid adult to navigate, and, if it is, any web-savvy kid should find their way around it in no time. To work, the filters would need to prevent users from asking search engines “How do I turn off these porn filters?” And then the question “How do I turn off the filters for questions about turning off filters?”

While as Wright points out, Google do already prevent images of child abuse (and I agree, please can everyone stop mislabelling it ‘child porn’) appearing online. It’s not as though Google have control over every single thing on the internet despite what people appear to believe. Only an idiot would search for true child abuse images using the world’s best known search engine. Well, an idiot and the Mail’s Amanda Platell, obviously. As any fule kno, real-life paedophiles use P2P networks which won’t be affected by ISP controls.There are also controls in Google to restrict search results and you have to go in and explicitly tell Google that you want to look at porn. It’s not as if it miraculously appears if you search for ‘where is my nearest Ikea’. This excellent post by Dave I/O explains better than I ever could about the technical details of the filter.

Censorship

It’s not the first time the government have expressed their desire to control the internet either – following the riots in 2011, Facebook and Twitter strongly resisted calls to shut down their websites during times of civil unrest. What other countries do stuff like that? Oh yes, China and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, funding for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Agency (CEOP) has been cut so their questionable ability to be able to eradicate child abuse from the internet is still further reduced.

There are really two issues at play here – the desire to curb pornography out of a misguided sense of morality and the larger issue of censorship. Much in the same way child abuse has been handily conflated into pornography, some feminist groups have long sought bans on porn (the Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign being one of the most recent iterations) – by conflating rape, sexual abuse and trafficking into porn, and abuse is very very different from porn. Cameron’s plans to censor content on the internet, far from being the silver bullet to end child abuse at the same time as preserving some mythical childhood innocence can equally be applied to anything else the government sees fit. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

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One comment

  1. Anonymous · · Reply

    The government also appear to have overlooked one major conduit of porn, that being newsgroups.

    Personally, I believe that newsgroups are probably the primary conduits of anything illegal on the internet, surpassing even p2p.

    And there are newsgroups available that have protected SSL / VPN sessions, so (apparently) any activity one might wish to indulge in is invisible to filters etc.

    Like

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