Ineffective, easily circumvented, dangerously misleading and a very bad precedent.

Much has been said this week about UK PM David Cameron’s proclamation about cracking down on online pornography, specifically child and rape porn. The whole idea being that he’s planning to stop the corrosion of innocence while simultaneously removing any encouragement that such content gives to potential/current sex offenders. Oh, and he might bundle in self-harm websites for good measure.

The Daily Mail campaigned for this and celebrated on their website with lots of sexed-up imagery of celebs in bikinis. Personally I’d suggest that their column of semi-clad reality tv stars  is also harmful to impressionable children (who can end up with body-image issues); at least as harmful as images of grown-ups enjoying themselves in perfectly legal ways. The photographs of topless women on page 3 of The Sun won’t be subject to this filtering because Mr Cameron thinks that they aren’t too pornographic*. Written content apparently won’t face the same default blocking that images and videos will – evidentially you can’t write a hardcore story that’s as vile as a photograph.

I guess it’s quite a subjective thing then, David! Computers are bad at working out what is the right and wrong thing to filter subjectively. They are good at following well-defined rules, but in this case it’s impossible to define the rules, because even David Cameron doesn’t know what they should be. People are already suggesting the problems of accidental filtering of sex education/medical content and even renaissance art, and Cameron acknowledges that implementing this will be problematic, but don’t let that get in the way of rushing a half-assed system into place in order to appease the media, eh?

Incidentally, I’ve seen some people suggesting that it’s mainly men who are speaking out against the porn filtering, but there are people of all genders with whom I would disagree about what was acceptable on both ends of the spectrum. I don’t think I’d want any of them deciding what anyone was allowed to look at.

The stuff that is rightly illegal won’t be impacted by any of this because it will just all disappear onto the darknet, so the barrier to entry may be higher, but that’s just reducing the visibility, not the problem. Almost like brushing it under the carpet. Far better to use the money being wasted on this approach to focus on hunting and bringing to justice the people who are actually harming/raping children and other adults.

I have children and I will be making sure that our home doesn’t have filtered internet. If children are properly educated and supervised, they don’t accidentally come across harmful images/videos on the internet. Certainly no more harmful than those that they would see on news sites of violent events. If you’re worried about your child’s online safety, don’t let them use the internet totally unsupervised and make sure that you are the one that teaches them about sex before they get the chance to hear it from someone else (whether that’s in the school yard or online).

When it boils down to it this shouldn’t just be about pornography; it should be about equipping children to deal with all sorts of bad things that happen in the world. It’s as much about them being able to see pictures on the news of a massacre and understanding that that isn’t ok. Filtering and monitoring may help, but they aren’t the complete solution. The solution is educating children and being open to them, so that they know they can ask about things that they don’t understand. I wonder how many parents will stop worrying about their kids being online because they think that the government has made it safe? Our streets are policed too, but that doesn’t mean they’re totally safe for little children.

However, that’s not even my biggest beef with this. The whole thing, apart from being an unimplementable farce, just gets the public used to the idea of a filtered internet that’s there for our protection. Once you start to accept the idea that someone else gets to decide what you’re allowed to see/access/know, then it’s easier for them to decide to filter other things that suit them but aren’t necessarily for your own good. They might decide that it’s in the interests of national security that nobody knows about PRISM, for example, so that there can’t be a public debate on whether or not it’s a good thing, etc. The trouble with filters at the ISP is always going to be that you don’t get to know what you aren’t being allows to see. As a friend of mine put it, “if we let someone else filter what we see, then we might as well move to North Korea”.

One of the greatest things about the internet is the availability of information. I will never agree with filtering that availability. This is nothing short of government censorship – the sort of thing that we deplore when it’s other countries doing it. I would strongly support greater penalties for people who abuse children – isn’t that a better problem to solve? There’s little point trying to implement a technological solution to a social problem. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to make that argument…

Over the years I’ve had several discussions around web filtering inside many organisations. The sorts of places that want to make sure that their employees can’t access Facebook, because if they don’t, their employees will waste all of their time on Facebook. That, like the PM’s newly proposed filtering, is applying an unworkable solution to the wrong problem. Where I work, in a university, if we were to block Facebook it would take literally minutes for the students to share the many, many ways that you can work round filtering. In companies that block certain “time wasting” websites, I sincerely hope that they’ve also stopped people bringing in books, newspapers, smartphones, oh, and banned people from looking out of the window, chatting about their weekends or other things that are so dangerous to productivity.

Hell, if the only way that a company can get their staff to actually do the work that they’re paying them for is by blocking their access to Facebook, then what on earth are the managers doing? Either they’re employing the wrong people, or they aren’t giving them the right targets to hit or appropriate motivation (which may include “if you’re spending all your day on Facebook, you get fired”). Either way, filtering the internet isn’t going to stop disenfranchised employees from procrastinating! Where a company is sending a message to its staff that it can’t trust them to not waste time on the web, they’re doing it wrong. In talking to people from such organisations, I’ve never heard a single one saying “it’s a really good thing that they filter the internet.”

For a great example of the ineffectiveness of internet filtering, we need to look no further than The Pirate Bay. The music and movie industries campaigned to have it taken off the internet, and in the UK at least you can’t visit The Pirate Bay’s primary URL through several ISPs. Of course they just added a bunch of other URLs and proxies that aren’t blocked because there’s no way that the legislation or ISPs can keep pace. The blocking of the site also triggered the Streisand effect, raising awareness and actually increasing traffic to it. A job well done!

The bottom line is that the way that the internet works means that it is great for making information free and available. It’s actually really, really difficult to stifle information on the internet, and most of the time that is a very good thing. It means that it’s harder for people to become oppressed. It’s harder for people to fall victim to propaganda. Yes it makes it possible, even easier in some cases, for people to commit crimes, but it is basically just a means of communication. Those crimes are still crimes whether the internet is involved or not, so prosecute the crimes, because trying to filter the internet is not going to work. Ever.

* Full disclosure: I also don’t believe that women’s breasts/nipples are to be feared (any more than those of a man). However, I don’t believe that they are news either.