Britain's conservative Prime Minister David Cameron announced sweeping proposals on Monday that would force all internet users in the UK to "opt-in" if they want to view online content categorized as "pornographic" by the government.
In a public address Cameron said that the new rules are driven by a "moral" duty to save the "corroding childhood" impacts of sexual internet material, but critics say that the plan is a misguided and unworkable solution that simply opens the door to a further erosion of the guiding principles that have made an "open internet" possible.
"By the end of this year, when someone sets up a new broadband account," explained Cameron in his address, "the settings to install family-friendly filters will be automatically selected. If you just click 'next' or 'enter', then the filters are automatically on."
But the UK-based Open Rights Group, which advocates for online freedoms, argues the controls will mostly punish people who are harmlessly surfing the internet or looking for materials that would not otherwise be restricted, while more sophisticated internet users—whether criminally active pedophiles or just curious teenagers—would easily sidestep the protections. The group stated:
This places too much faith in technical tools that have historically proved flawed in achieving their goals.
Teenagers are usually sexually curious, and the forbidden has its own cachet. This may motivate them to try to bypass filters. It is poor advice to suggest that they will not succeed.
The filtering being suggested is only likely to work for those not actively looking for adult content, and even then no filter is perfect.
For instance devices, left unchecked, could be used to bypass filtering with extreme ease. Filtering can often be bypassed by anyone with an admin password, by using a VPN or proxy. This may sound technical, but is trivial. Many children learn how to do this to access Facebook at school.
According to Danny O'Brien, international policy director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the implications of Cameron's proposal exceed even these concerns. Amid the recent revelations surrounding the behavior of the US National Security Agency and growing public concern about online privacy, this is just the most recent example of government interference with the idea of an open internet.
"To have internet censorship, you also need surveillance," O'Brien told Common Dreams by phone. "In order to block content you need to know what people are looking at."
One of the most troubling aspects of Cameron's proposals, he said, is that private internet companies—both search engines and ISPs (internet service providers)—are being asked by government to "turn their algorithms into instruments of law enforcement."
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"And that's a really harsh step," he continued, "because as everyone realizes, these companies have an enormous amount of background information on end-users."
Once this precedent is set, O'Brien warned, you begin to betray the tenants of a healthy and democratic media system, which are transparency, oversight and proportionality.
"But you can't have transparency when you maintain a secret blacklist. You can't have oversight when there's no clear regulatory authority guiding the program. And you can't have proportionality when you apply it to the whole of the internet," he said.
Lastly, say critics, the realities of the scheme do little or nothing to address whatever real concerns there are about the impact of pornography on children or the wider society.
Many observers note that Cameron's new proposal does little more than create the illusion of addressing a problem, while in many ways scuttling the real problem that online porn may present to society.
"We – children and adults alike – need to learn about the damaging psychological, social and physical effects of online porn," writes British citizen Tom Meltzer in a commentary for The Guardian. However, he says, a mandatory "default-on" approach to the internet "would be an error."
"It would be buck-passing on our part, asking our internet providers to somehow stem the unending tide," he said, "rather than face the need for some frank and very un-British conversations. But the worst of all possible worlds is one in which the prime minister announces he has solved the problem when he's only pretending to have brushed it under the carpet."
And the Open Rights Group agreed:
Children will not necessarily be any less likely to be able to access whatever they like as the result of network filters, even if they are deterred. That may be a reasonable objective – but it is wrong to suggest that a magic bullet has solved the problem he talks about.
Education and parents talking to their children remain the only way for children to be helped. Cameron today should have been heavily caveating his claims, and by failing to do so, many parents will think the technologies ISPs are about to provide do a much better job than they will.