Internet Censorship

Today David Cameron has talked about his plans to introduce controls on Internet access and search, ostensibly to crack-down on child pornography, but with a fairly broad scope that encompasses child porn, ‘extreme’ porn, and porn in general.

The main proposal is to oblige anyone connecting to the Internet to ‘opt in’ to access to ‘online pornography’ by the end of next year. There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, exactly what will be filtered? This is not clear, but one might assume that it would be the same sort of filtering that is applied by similar filtering software one can install at home. No automatic filtering is perfect though, so it’s almost certain that along with the majority of ‘porn’ content some other content will also be removed, including subjects such as sex education, contraception advice, and possibly rape crisis and support services. This isn’t just speculation - the Internet is full of examples of over-zealous filters blocking inoffensive content.

It is important to realise that a filtered Internet service is not an Internet service. As such, UK ISPs will not really be able to claim to be ‘Internet Service Providers’ at all. This might seem like a slightly pedantic point, but it is important. If you’re happy for your provider to provide you with a filtered Internet, what else are they filtering? It is beyond your control. Up until now, it’s up to you (as an adult) to determine what content you want your family members to access and install filtering software appropriately. You have control. This change will mean that it’s no longer up to you. Happy to allow your teenage children to view nudity as part of artwork? Well, maybe the government isn’t - bad luck, it’s filtered. Happy to allow sex education videos? Well, it’s not up to you any more. Sure, you can ‘opt in’ to the unfiltered connection, but then you are in the same position you are in now anyway, except now you’re on a list.

Let’s think about that list. When ISPs ask customers to ‘opt in’ to a proper Internet connection, how many people will be comfortable doing so? We know that ISPs share all sorts of data about their customers with the government, other companies, advertisers, etc, and this list will be no exception - in fact it will almost certainly be of interest. Do you want to be on such a list? Why should people who simply want unrestricted Internet access have to ‘opt in’ to anything when they know that they will be at risk of being judged?

You can picture the scenario - someone is in the frame for some crime, such as Christopher Jefferies (Joanna Yeates’ landlord that the press basically decided was guilty because he looked weird). It is revealed that they are on the ‘porn list’, and BAM! That’s all of the evidence that the ‘think of the children’ brigade will need.

How long will it be before I need to register with the government to be allowed access to books that they consider ‘vile’? Or films? Or art? Or ideas?

“Oh well”, you may think, “if enough of the electorate wanted this maybe we should do it? That’s democracy.” Perhaps. But guess what? Last year the Department for Education held a consultation on “parental internet controls” to elicit views from parents. Most respondents indicated that parents were quite capable of taking responsibility for the online safety of their children. There is no call from the electorate for these measures.

Let me be clear. In the West we rightly criticise other governments, such as China, for providing their citizens with a censored version of the Internet. Cameron is proposing the same for us. He might claim it’s just porn, and that may be how it starts, but the thing about a censored Internet is that you don’t know what you can’t see. Censorship is a tool of tyranny. It’s not about pornography, it’s about control. The moment you let your government decide what you may or may not read/watch/hear, you are encouraging fascism.

As well as having to opt-out of censorship, Cameron is also promoting another massively illiberal measure - outlawing possession of ‘extreme porn’. This “includes scenes of simulated rape”. ‘Includes’ is an interesting word there, since it shows that includes a bunch of other things too. One must wonder who defines what ‘extreme’ means exactly, since one man’s view of something as entirely harmless and mainstream might offend someone who is somewhat more conservative. The dangerous thing here is that Cameron is proposing legislating for morals rather than anything where there is any evidence it will reduce crime. There is no question that the ‘extreme porn’ being banned is created using consenting adults (any that isn’t is obviously illegal already). The proposal is that society is judging what some people do in the privacy of their own homes, harming no-one else, to be so ‘immoral’ that they should be locked-up at the taxpayer’s expense for three years, whether or not anyone else even sees the images.

Once possessing this ‘extreme porn’ is outlawed, what next? Logically one must also outlaw images of fake murders, since it’s almost certain that murderers have seen such images before going out to commit their crimes. Then what about simulated drug use? You could argue the same for that. This is the slippery slope that outlawing the depiction of anything must lead us down given the logic of creating the law in the first place. We would see the end of a lot of art and most films - certainly anything with more than a PG certificate. This law could already make possession of a lot of films illegal, i.e. basically anything that contains a rape scene. “But that’s not porn!”, you might say. Isn’t it? What’s the difference? Would you be happy to defend the depiction of rape in, say, Irreversible or I Spit On Your Grave as something that nobody could derive pleasure from? They’d be pretty sick, but of course they could, just as some people could from just about anything. That is why laws like this are so insidious.

Let’s just hope that this is just another Coalition promise to ‘crack down’ that follows their previous attempts on such things as plain cigarette packaging and minimum alcohol prices.