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  • malcolm.boura

    The growth of internet censorship

    This article was prompted by the response of Iain Duncan Smith, a senior Tory politician, to the British Naturism general election questions. His reply was so far divorced from reality that we emailed him to check that it was genuine. Somebody from his campaign office replied that it was. Was he deliberately misleading or is he just totally out of touch?

    All is not gloom, the mobile operators have taken a small step in the right direction by adopting the BBFC ratings scheme. However the BBFC scheme is only partly harm based, it is influenced by popular prejudice, and the implementation by the operators is still grossly inadequate. The government has shown no inclination to fix the problems.

    There is only one good reason for mandatory blocking, that the harm resulting from allowing the communication is significantly greater than the harm done by limiting freedom of expression. Anything else is censorship.

    Filtering should fall into two broad categories: 1) the mandatory blocking of harmful material; and 2) the optional blocking of benign material.

    It is very easy for filtering to become censorship so what are the features of good quality filtering?

    1. it blocks harmful material, according to age;
    2. it provides optional blocking of benign material, according to age;
    3. it does not block beneficial material, according to age;
    4. it uses criteria that reflect possible harm, according to age. The criteria must be evidence based, not driven by profit or myth, and they must not reinforce harmful attitudes;
    5. objective guidance is provided so that the consumer can make informed decisions;
    6. it is transparent so that both the provider and the consumer know what is being filtered and why; and
    7. it is accountable so that mistakes are put right.

    So how well do the filtering systems work in practice?

    • Filtered according to age is almost completely ignored. Suitable for a 5 year old and suitable for a 17 year old is vastly different but most filtering systems treat everyone under 18 as a child and everyone over 18 as an adult. At age 17 years and 364 days, probably sexually active and perhaps married, they are not allowed to see a female nipple (tell that to babies!) and the following day they are allowed as much hard core sado-masochistic pornography as they like. That in itself is an obvious recipe for harm. Fail.
    • How something is shown can make all the difference between seriously harmful and highly beneficial but filtering systems do not understand that. Fail.

    1. Harmful material has become more difficult for children to access but not impossible. A determined teenager will find ways to circumvent filtering. Partial success.
    2. Optional blocking. Only some systems provide options and invariably those options are so simplistic that they are not fit for purpose. Largely failed.
    3. Does not block beneficial material. A lot is blocked. Fail.
    4. Objective information. Little or none is provided. Fail.
    5. Transparency to the consumer and transparency to the provider:
      • Consumer: Some systems declare “not found” or “not available” when the real reason is censorship. Partial fail.
      • Provider: We have never been informed by a censor that our web site is being blocked although we know that it often is. Fail.

    [*]Accountable. Filtering is provided by big business and the primary goal is profit. Public access wi-fi is heavily censored but the enormous number of providers makes contesting it impracticable. Experience shows that there is little point in complaining when the criteria used for making decisions are based on myth and cheapness. Fail.

    So what changed during the last parliament whilst the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition was in power?

    • The British Naturism web site is currently blocked by two of the mobile phone operators (default settings) unless the user of the device is over 18 and has opted in for pornography. That blocking is mandatory for at least one of the phone companies. Parents are not allowed to opt out on behalf of their child.
    • The British Naturism web site is blocked by probably most of the broadband providers unless the consumer opts in for pornography and turns off all protection for their children.
    • The British Naturism web site is blocked by most, perhaps all, public bodies. We have had police officers ask for documents because they were not allowed to look at our web site. Social workers are not allowed to look at our child-protection information. People write to us because they are not allowed to access our web site using the computers at their local library. Even journalists have had difficulties. How are any of them expected to do their jobs?
    • The British Naturism web site is blocked by most public access wi-fi. The filtering company says that it is up to the provider of the wi-fi but we can not possibly challenge every public wi-fi provider. Moreover it would be pointless because a large part of the problem is the simplistic classification schemes used by the filtering companies and the inadequate guidance that they provide.
    • The damage being done is not just due to over-blocking. It is also due to the misinformation that these systems promote. After all, if it were not dangerous then they would not block it, would they? There is a clear conflict of interest. The filtering providers have a profit motive in scaremongering, it helps to keep them in business.
      The least prudish western countries have by far the best outcomes. For example in Denmark the teenage pregnancy rate is only about one tenth that of the USA, and the USA is probably the most prudish of any western nation. The picture is similar for all the other body-knowledge and body-attitude related indicators and for all the international comparison. Less prudish, better outcomes, often by a factor of ten or more. The same pattern is even apparent within the UK. The correlations are obvious and the causal mechanisms are well understood, but policy, driven by myth and prejudice, continues to promote failure. It is bizarre that these systems, supposedly to protect children, promote attitudes known to result in appalling outcomes for children.
      We challenge anyone seeking to defend internet censorship, euphemistically called filtering, to find anything on the British Naturism web site that would harm a child, anything at all. If a parent does not like a web site then they are at liberty to install filtering. It is not acceptable that harmless and beneficial web sites are blocked for everyone simply because a few people do not like them or because the censors consider maximising profit more important than doing their job properly.
      Today I am rushing to complete this article so that I can publish it. Tomorrow I will be on holiday and I may be blocked from accessing the British Naturism server by the wi-fi in the hotel. That will not just block me from publishing this article, it will also block me from accessing any of our management systems.
      Bootnote:From the British Naturism members forums:

      Wiltshire libraries and offices block access to Google Translate, because of a possibility to use it as a proxy to get round blocks. Ironic when their own information pages say if you don't have English, you should peruse the councils web pages using ----- Google Translate.
      Wiltshire is unlikely to be alone.
      Censorship of the internet is starting to have its own relentless momentum and politicians, councils and internet providers are being driven to put censorship before access, and are fast losing sight of what they are trying to block.
      Politicians have willed this, but I am not sure they really know how extensive and completely unaccountable it has become, and worry that they don't give a fig anyway. By making it the job of the ISPs and access providers instead of being honest and having a WW2 style ministry of information in charge, commercial firms with no obligation to fairness are springing up, and each can play the jobsworth line. In short, censorship has become an industry of its own. Unaccountable.

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