UK Prime Minister David Cameron has declared war on Internet porn
. He wants both Internet service providers and search engine owners to protect UK families against pornography. Political initiatives to control the Internet are typically badly prepared and in conflict with central principles of the net. This case is no different and the reactions are mostly negative. Even if practically all of us agree that there’s a lot of stuff on the net that isn’t suitable for children.
So Cameron’s crusade is basically well-meaning, even if the proposed tools are questionable. There are two central points in the proposal; Internet service providers must offer porn filters that the customer can opt-out from and search engine providers must do more to exclude illegal content from search results. Let’s take a look at some central points in this proposal to see what’s right and what’s wrong.
- The initiative would automatically implement at least some level of protection for home users. This is good and would decrease the number of kids surfing without protection. The ability to opt out also makes sure that the system isn’t interfering with adults’ legal right to consume pornography.
- Even if it’s not said out loud, the proposed opt-out scheme would mean that the porn filter must be included in the fee for Internet connectivity and not sold as a separate billable service. The prize competition for broadband services would drive operators towards cheap solutions that might not be the most effective.
- Customers would of course have the option to purchase additional filtering products or services if the free filer isn’t good enough. But most consumers would probably be less interested in searching for a solution that fits their needs if the operator offers something free of charge. This could lead to poor protection and a false sense of security.
- The proposal does not dictate if the filter should work at the operators’ servers or be a product that is installed on the customers’ devices. A server-solution is harder to bypass and will automatically protect all devices that access the net through a certain Internet connection. But it can’t differ between the devices. If you opt out, you opt out for all the devices in the household at once. More and more of our Internet use is through personal devices. Therefore it would make sense to implement this filtering using software that is installed and configured separately for each device.
- But why would I opt out? I don’t want the kinky stuff. Well, it’s not that simple. There is no sharp definition about what porn is. Fine art nude photography and pornography are for example often mixed up. And the filtering is on top of that done by computers which lack intelligence. It’s inevitable that there will be tons of cases where the end user disagrees with the filter’s decision to block or not block a particular site. Many people would opt out when the filter prevents them from accessing some perfectly valid information. Like sexual education for children. And if the system runs at the operator side, then you opt out the whole family at once. Not good. By the way, one hilarious case a couple of years back involving a security vendor which shall remain unnamed. I tried to access the national spaniel club here in Finland. They have a separate page for Cocker Spaniels, but my security program thought it was unsuitable for me because of adult content. Bad word in the title. So opting out does not mean that you are a pornography consumer, maybe you just have a Cocker Spaniel. Or a SusSEX Spaniel.
- Cameron also targets rape porn. He wants to group it together with child porn and make both publishing and possession illegal. This sounds reasonable, but the problem is that the term rape is quite fuzzy. The age of a person can be verified, but how do you measure the intentions and feelings of persons visible in a photograph? Legislation shouldn’t be fuzzy, it should be clear enough so that ordinary people can tell right from wrong. This is important at a principal level. Also keep in mind the international differences. This BBC-article related to the Julian Assange case goes deeper into that aspect.
- The other part of the proposal is tighter filtering in search engines. Google has already implemented SafeSearch ages ago, and it does a quite good job. But it sounds like Cameron is aiming for a mandatory filtering on the search engines. This is dramatically different from SafeSearch, which is controllable by the user.
- What’s really scary is the planned way to maintain blacklists for the search engines. The Internet connectivity filtering would apparently be based on real content filtering services that already are available on the market. But Cameron would control the search engines through an authority-based agency instead. Authorities are driven by bureaucracy and politics, and do rarely have the agility required to follow rapidly-changing threat scenarios. Vendors which provide content filtering do on the other hand have all the skills and processes needed to do this kind of work successfully. There’s really just two possible explanations for letting an authority do this. Incompetence or a hidden agenda. This kind of scenario always raise concerns about censorship. (Here in Finland we have an infamous example of how wrong it can go when the police is expected to follow on-line threats and update a block list for child porn sites.)
- Cameron has “agreed” with the operators to implement the filtering. If it’s not done “voluntarily” there will be a law about it. This is yet another example of the immoral method to force companies in a certain direction by threatening them with legislation. Politicians should have guts to stand behind their opinions, go through the normal democratic legislation process and make formal decisions about it. If something is mandatory, then there should be clear rules. Not just political pressure.
- He is getting one thing right, defining the main problem. Child porn is more shocking and get more headlines, and the discussion often shifts towards it. But child porn on the open net is really a marginal problem. Ordinary legal pornography in the hands of minors is the big problem, and this is also the focus in this reform. That’s good. Making rape porn illegal may also be a justified move, but let’s keep the realities in mind. Banning child porn has pushed it into closed communities where the pedophiles still can exchange material fairly freely. Banning rape porn would have the same effect. The sick people who get inspired by that stuff are still out there, and will eventually find the communities with the material they want.
So what’s left at the end? There is one undisputable benefit, Cameron is raising awareness about the unsuitable content on the net. This is good even if the planned actions are questionable. But do we really need Cameron for this? All the tools needed to protect the children are already available. You can do some googling and select suitable filtering products for all your devices. So why not do it right away? It is after all the parents who have the ultimate responsibility for their children. You can’t outsource that to Mr. Cameron and you do not need to wait for his next move.
PS. When looking for an illustration to this article I googled for images matching “content blocked”. It was easy to find blocking screens about copyright violations, mainly according to the American SOPA/PIPA act. But hard to find child safety blocking screens. Does this tell something about our priorities? Is protecting the media industry really more important than protecting children from pornography?