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Ignorance or Mendacity? The Dangers of Censorship

July 06, 2016

Whilst the chaos and fallout of the UK’s vote to leave the EU is still settling the Govt has been pushing through some of its more poorly thought out and illiberal legislation, presumably in some attempt to pander to the technologically illiterate majority of Little Englanders. What am I talking about? Why the Digital Economy Bill of course. Whilst the bill covers a number of areas, I’d like to focus on one section in particular: Porn.

The Conservatives have a history of using porn as a bogeyman to frame the debate around internet freedoms as one in which anyone who opposes censorship is a pervert, hell bent on corrupting children. Where people who use anonymising services such as Tor are all criminals, terrorists and paedophiles, and where we must all acquiesce to the state filtering our networks and spying on us at all times for our own good.

In 2014 David Cameron brought in the Tories infamous “porn filters” claiming, as usual, to be for the protection of children. However it soon became apparent that the Tories filters, for which there was no public accountability, were censoring a lot more than just pornography. According to Diane Duke, president of the US-based Free Speech Coaltion:

“The filters Prime Minister Cameron supports block sexual health sites, they block domestic violence sites, they block gay and lesbian sites, they block information about eating disorders and a lot of information to which it’s crucial young people have access. Rather than protect children from things like bullying and online predators, these filters leave children in the dark.”

And this was merely the opening shot, the prelude, to what was to come. The original filters were opt-in, or opt-out for new ISP customers but now the Govt wants all sites serving “Adult” material, the definition of which has been left intentionally vague in the legislation, to require Age Verification whilst not outlining any method for such verification to utilise on pain of a £250,000 fine or 5% of their yearly turnover, whichever is higher. It also provides the legislative basis for a newly created Age Verification Regulator who will, presumably, be in charge of responding to allegations of wrongdoing and handing out fines.

So what’s the problem? Surely this is for the good of our innocent kids? Well, it sounds like it at first glance but that unravels the moment you actually think about it for more than say… 5 seconds. The vast majority of “Adult” websites are not hosted in the UK and are, therefore, beyond the jurisdiction of the British Govt. The only way to prevent people from freely accessing them would be to introduce a filtering system that users cannnot opt-out of. Some countries already have systems like this. China, Iran and Saudi Arabia spring to mind. Bastions of free speech and thought that they are, I’m not keen on the UK emulating their policies on internet freedoms.

But that, I think, is the end game. Under the guise of “Think of the Children” the Conservatives will claim that because they can’t enforce their legislation across the entire internet then a nationwide blocking system will be required. Apparently they still haven’t learned that such things simply don’t work. Anyone with even a smidgen of tech know-how can bypass them and unless the block-list is made public there’s the very real probability that the state will use it to censor any kind of website they don’t like. The implications of which are truly Orwellian.

Even if we assume that the Tories intentions are benign, and we have no reason to, there is the further problem that block lists and web filters, be they based on urls or meta-data, simply don’t work very well. Websites that cover areas such as support for abuse victims or LGBT issues tend to get caught up and censored. Websites that seemingly have no relation to anything objectionable often get blocked because the blocking mechanism is not capable of distinguishing the nuances of language. This is commonly known as the Scunthorpe Problem:

However the Conservatives aren’t known for their technological acumen. Nor are they likely to care too much about the wider implications of their program for censorship. These are, afterall, the same politicians that want to spy on every thing we do online with little or no independent oversight. As such I believe that we are going to see more and more attempts to restrict our access to information under the guise of protecting us from whatever they can use to scare people into submission. Be it paedophiles, terrorists or any other bogeyman they can conjure up, the threat to our right to free expression and acces to information is very real and only getting more so.

This legislation isn’t about protecting children, it’s about laying the groundwork for censorship on an industrial scale whilst framing the debate in such a way that anyone who dares question it can be branded a pervert.

Censorship is a slippery slope, and this one’s paved with lube and latex.


Nick Boughton avatar

About Nick Boughton
Just a nerdy web and systems developer on the webbertubes. I make silly things and play D&D.

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