Monday, 2 December 2013

No smoke without fire? Sleepwalking into censorship

Icon with a cigarette! Call the censors!
Back in the halcyon days of summer, Prime Minister David Cameron decided to indulge in a spot of populist rhetoric by calling for internet service providers to explore the possibility of imposing filters on their services.

These would mean that customers would have to opt out of the filter in order to be able to see a variety of materials.

The big media fuss has all been about blocking porn and Saving Our Children.

But as the Open Rights Group made clear in July, having spoken to ISPs, porn is hardly the only thing on a list that you’ll be expected to opt in to.

Their list was:

• pornography;
• violent material;
• extremist and terrorist-related content;
• anorexia and eating disorder websites;
• suicide-related websites;
• alcohol;
• smoking;
• web forums;
• esoteric material;
• web blocking circumvention tools.

One would have thought that “extremist and terrorist related content” was already covered – by being illegal.

What constitutes “violent material”? A film – or stills – of Titus Andronicus? Tom and Jerry? The Rumble in the Jungle?

Alcohol and smoking? Both entirely legal the last time I looked. And would that include stills of, say, Humphrey Bogart with a fag?

And “web forums”. Well, that’s mumsnet gone.

But perhaps the best is “esoteric”. So, material that is ‘intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialised knowledge or interest.’ So a specialised area of history, then?

One is left to wonder at all these categories, which one will have to opt in to rather than opt out of.

There is an idea that it will act on ‘nudge theory’ – that people will be less inclined to uncheck boxes and simply glide through the setting-up process.

If one doesn’t, will one be monitored? Who will monitor the monitors? The evidence for the latter question is: nobody.

It’s difficult to think that that is overly paranoid.

Only a couple of weeks ago it emerged that Tony Blair had allowed the US to spy on British citizens and store data about them. The US had then gone further than agreed.

The Conservative Party, in opposition, were – rightly – opposed to increased monitoring of British citizens, but the Parliamentary party has changed its view since taking office.

Given the Snowden revelations, is there really a government that you would trust to censor what people can and cannot access on the internet?

Yet even if you could trust this government – and any foreseeable ones – to make decisions for you on what you should and should not see, why would you?

Why would you want to hand over to any government any degree of control over what you could view?

Personally, I don’t buy the ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide’ line.

I might have nothing to ‘hide’ in terms of any criminal behaviour, but that doesn’t mean that I should not still value my privacy – my right, for instance, to exchange (legal) comments with any other individual without anyone else watching in.

What we do need is far better sex education for children and young people – sex education that includes issues around social media and the internet and, yes, porn, but not religiously-based sex education that teaches only guilt, which then becomes counterproductive.

What we do not need is giving power over what we view and read to politicians and the security services (whether of this country or any other) and unelected, unaccountable internet providers.

And if those arguments don’t convince you, then remember that one of the biggest cheerleaders for the ‘pornwall’ is the Daily Mail, which you could almost forget does not routinely use its website to pen creepy, sexualising comments about underage girls.

I’ve posted about the ‘porn panic’ before – and hopefully this brief post makes clearer why any filtering is a slippery road that should be opposed.

Everyone needs to really think before getting suckered in to censorship on the basis of cheap soundbites.

• For more on sex education for today, visit Bish Training.

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