UK Porn Blocking Defaults Encourage Much Wider Censorship - UltraLinx

UK Porn Blocking Defaults Encourage Much Wider Censorship

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UK Porn Blocking Defaults Encourage Much Wider Censorship

In China, the Government owns all Internet Service Providers meaning it can control and surveil people's activities online. It actively limits access to specific websites like Facebook and Twitter which promote freedom of expression and communication, ensuring that there is little critical political commentary in the country. Amnesty International confirms that China "has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world", highlighting the extent of censorship which the state will impose in order to retain power. A teacher at a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) school in the country, to explain why the Party has no official website, is quoted by Richard McGregor as saying: "All the important media is owned by the Party, so we have no need to set up a website." This is a society which most of us in the Western world would agree is not one in which we would want to live - it opposes the core values of democracy and free-speech that we believe in.

It wouldn't be right to advocate free-speech without explaining why it's important though, so let me try. It's generally agreed that the best states have leaders whom wish to better their country, not themselves, and spread power to be sure no one person has control. In order to make sure that there are good, honest, well-meaning people in power, there must be transparency and the media and the public must be allowed to criticise the government and those in power when they make poor decisions. When those in power are held accountable for their actions and their power is limited, the result tends to be positive for the state and its people.

I think it would be fair to say that most people reading this do not support the CCP's acts of forceful censorship in China. If a government was imposing censorship of legal websites without even specifying why they were blocked in your country, as happens in China, you'd probably be more than slightly annoyed. You might even feel that it was a violation of your freedom to access information online. You might go as far to say that it was an ultimate betrayal and disregard for openness and transparency. This is exactly what could be the case in the UK very soon if we are not careful in the way we respond to new policies.

The prime minister has been kind enough to explain that there is no "censorship", that he is only protecting your children from the dangers of illegal pornography, which is of course a valid and worthy fight to pick. The issue is that his proposal to censor the Internet for the UK public is not limited to illegal pornography, or even solely illegal material. It has a much wider reach which is in actual fact nearly unlimited by the language used. A draft opt-out form created by ISPs based on Cameron's advice not only automatically defaults to "On" for filtering but also defaults to filtering a much larger range of websites than the PM has ever publicly mentioned or promoted in his campaign against online pornography. The full list of categories to be blocked by default includes: pornography, violent material, extremist and terrorist related content, anorexia and eating disorder websites, suicide related websites, alcohol, smoking, web forums, esoteric material, and web blocking circumvention tools. Those are the exact words used in the form.

The first issue I have with this is the blocking of eating disorder, suicide, alcohol and smoking websites. From my experience, web filtering technology tends not to be the sharpest tool in the box; and, unfortunately, I have no reason to believe that Huawei (the company which is providing the filtering, coincidentally owned by the Chinese state) will do a better job. What's to stop the software from blocking a site which aims to help those with issues such as those mentioned accidentally? Perhaps this is too cautious, but I would like to know more about the software behind filtering websites regarding such important and delicate issues as these. If it is done correctly it will likely save lives, but if not, it could as easily damage them.

The second issue I take is with filtering "web forums". Forums and the Internet go hand-in-hand - they're places for people to discuss things in long threads of back-and-forth conversation. XDA is probably one of the best-known tech forums. Will it be blocked? I can't understand why it would be considered appropriate to block such a 'category' of websites; really it's not a category at all, it's a medium. Blocking "web forums" for every Briton is akin to blocking every video sharing website. It doesn't tackle content in any way, only a method of sharing it.

My final issue from this list, though I'm sure you could find more, is the odd addition of "esoteric material". With forums and the addiction- or disorder-related sites mentioned, I can see why it might be thought that there could be a high concentration of harmful sites in those groups, but to filter esoteric websites seems to be several orders of magnitude more ludicrous. So, let's define "esoteric": Intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialised knowledge or interest. To me this suggests only that the content is not understood by the majority, or that it is a belief only a minority holds. So, wait a second, could this not literally leave the UK open to a similar form of censorship as is in China? The knowledge and opinions of the minority will be censored simply because they are not understood by others. While it is less severe than the case in China, the infringement of freedom could be exactly the same, if the language used in the form is accurate.

Of course, supporters of the PM's plan will either say that the benefit, helping to protect children in the UK, outweighs the negative impact on the law-abiding public. They might argue that it will be criminals that will take the hit from the filtering system and that the public, who don't visit 'illegal' websites, won't even notice a difference. But, of course, as the language of the form itself suggests, there will be a great deal more than simply illegal content blocked online. You will be genuinely affected and the information available to you online will be limited in an unnecessary, damaging way.

The retort to this may be that if people wish to disable a part of the filtering system they can do so very easily - it is only the criminals who will be stopped before they can be drawn to illegal content in the first place. This is utterly backwards though. In reality, the exact opposite will be true. In recent studies reported by the Guardian and the New York Times, it has been found that between 88% and 93% of people do not read terms and conditions of products and services despite agreeing to them; and this is the case when all you have to do is read, when no action needed. The results are even more distressing when you consider research into people changing their settings from the defaults in applications. A 2011 study of of several hundred Microsoft Word users (technologically literate readers of UIE) found that 95% had changed none of the settings at all from the defaults. While you can recognise that these studies aren't of exactly the same service or setting type as the ISP filtering system, you have to imagine that the outcome will reflect these results. The general user will most definitely be affected. It is only the criminals - who will deactivate, or even bypass such filters because they have a reason to do so - who will not be affected in any way.

The part of Cameron's campaign which I do absolutely agree with is that targeting illegal porn online to prevent those who may be drawn from it to other illegal material in order to prevent cases such as April Jones' murder (which has unfortunately become a cliché of this campaign) is important. Restricting access to illegal pornography should obviously be attempted. However, the very nature of the Internet resists filtering. It was originally intended to be an entirely open network used to share information. It's almost as if the structure of the Internet itself fights back against filtering systems, through the rise of VPN services and suchlike. It would be far more effective to target those publishing illegal content. This is not a social problem as David Cameron and his advisers seem to assert. It is very much a technical problem, and not one which politicians - who seem to be struggling with an ugly combination of ulterior motives (based on the fact that there is so little sense behind and such a wide scope of the default options of the opt-out filtering) and feelings of distrust from the public (following other massive Internet-centric stories like Prism which the UK's GCHQ is certainly involved in) - will be able to solve with publicity stunts veiled in pseudo-well-intentioned policies. A 'war on illegal pornography' is perfectly justified, but what is currently being proposed is not so much a pornwall, as it has been dubbed, rather Cameron's personal whatever-he-wants wall. The people of the UK deserve better when it comes to censoring the Internet; a balance of freedom and restriction of accessing illegal material.