Internet censorship: the slippery slope starts here

20 Dec 2010

Do you remember good old AOL? The once near ubiquitous, “family-friendly” ISP that only let certain “safe” websites into its walled garden, and practically forbade users to venture any further. Think Steve Jobs crossed with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Well we’re all AOL customers now: or at least, that’s what the Government would like us to be.

A few weeks after Conservative MP Claire Perry tested the waters by suggesting ISPs should apply cinema-style age ratings to pornographic sites, Communications Minister Ed Vaizey has all but made it Government policy (i.e. he told The Sunday Times).

“This is a very serious matter,” he told the newspaper. “I think it's very important that it's the ISPs that come up with solutions to protect children,” threatening to do so by law if the ISPs don’t get it together, much like the previous Labour Government did over music piracy and the ensuing Digital Economy Act – and look how swimmingly that worked out!

Aside from the enormous technical challenges of applying age ratings to every site on the internet, does the Government have any right to foist censorship on the British public? As a father of young children, I’m no keener on kids getting unbridled access to pornography than Mr Vaizey, but if he thinks slapping onerous filters on every web connection is going to hold back the tide, he’s wrong.

If Mum and Dad are worried about their teens running off to their bedrooms and downloading porn when they’re not looking, they could try something radical – discipline

The internet was as futuristic as Red Dwarf when I was at school, but I had no problem laying my hands on the copies of Playboy or Razzle being passed round the playground (sorry Mum). And if teenagers can’t get access to cyber smut, they can always flick to the nether regions of the Sky EPG late at night and catch more than an eyeful on the adult channels (funny how Perry and Vaizey aren’t so het-up about Murdoch’s money-spinning channels, eh?).

Vaizey’s using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut, imposing blanket censorship when two simple measures will prevent children accessing adult content: filtering software and good parenting.

Everyday software such as Norton Internet Security includes parental controls that are almost certainly as effective as anything the ISPs can impose. If Mum and Dad are worried about their teens running off to their bedrooms and downloading porn when they’re not looking, they could try something radical – discipline. Insist the kids only use computers in communal rooms or set up Windows parental controls to prevent children using the PC late at night, for example. It’s really not hard.

My biggest worry about Vaizey’s iron curtain is: where will it end? Pornography’s an easy target: the argument that “no right-minded parent would want to subject their children to pornographic content” is morally difficult to oppose and will play well in the tabloids. But then what right-minded parent wants their child looking at snuff movies, or a Frankie Boyle sketch, or the BNP website?

Where does it end, Mr Vaizey? Where does it end?

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