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Posted on December 20th, 2010 by Barry Collins

Internet censorship: the slippery slope starts here

Hazard signsDo 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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26 Responses to “ Internet censorship: the slippery slope starts here ”

  1. Steve Cassidy Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    personally, what worries me most is that there are only pro-censorship and anti-censorship camps. The Pros are loony, somewhat paranoid, under-researched headbangers who imagine that every naked body part is an incitement to savagery. The Antis are if anything, worse – everything wants to be free, everyone can and should see everything, yada yada.

    What’s missing is a credible product, maintained by people who know what to look for and who are not barking mad from either end of the spectrum. As such, AOL did a fairly good job, for their time – they hired smart worldly wise Brits to d their censoring, not naive corn-belt bible-bashers. That said, I can remember having some exceedingly disturbing encounters *within* AOL, so all those efforts can come to naught when real people start actually using the kit!

  2. jon honeyball Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Dont forget that Win7, Vista and OSX have perfectly good parental controls built in.

  3. jon honeyball Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    And I too remember the playground swap. Only these days I bet its usb keys. Has anyone ever done a credible nipple remover from jpgs?

  4. Barry Collins Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Jon – I didn’t. Mentioned three pars from the end:)

  5. Oliver Taylor Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    But surely this isn’t the ISP’s job?
    The ISP should do what it says on its superficial tin – provide access to the internet. This is where they should stop, bar improving connectivity and speeds.
    As it has been mentioned above there are plenty of barriers out there to stop this activity and let be honest if a kid/teenager/young adult wants to get somewhere they will – let them make their mistakes and learn from it.
    There is far to much control over what people can and can’t do and ISP’s shouldn’t have to enforce that. If one provides a safety barrier and the other doesn’t then which is going to be the most popular? People in the UK spend on average 87 hours looking at porn – people like it.
    Also the article makes another good point – if they don’t get it from the internet they can get it elsewhere. There will be ways round it. My 11 year old cousin knows the pin code for sky and can quite easily get on the “late night” channels. Their little fingers can quite quickly get around and find the info they need. This is life as we know it and an age rating isn’t going to change that.

  6. Ben Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    I usually fall the anti-government-trying-to-mess-with-technology side of the fence, but here I honestly think this is one of the best proposals they’ve had for a while. It’s currently in place across most mobile networks (certainly in on Orange), and works well, so technically it’s really not that tricky, also the anti-censorship people need to remember you can opt-out of this if you’ve got the balls to call up your ISP and ask them to unleash the smut. But the thing is since I was about 7 I’ve been more tech-savy then my parents and would definitely have been able to circumvent any parental controls they had managed to put in place (which they wouldn’t know how to do) well before I was 18. And good parenting aside, the temptation is always there for young kids, and you can put in place all the discipline you like but I’d bet that wont stop them. The bigger the wall you can put in place the better. I’d also be willing to bet there are a number of adults out there who just need and want that barrier of not wanting to call their ISP to stop them flicking into private browsing mode every so often. I honestly think if this were in place it would help people break the addiction of porn, because it is an addiction, and no one that has been involved in it or seen people involved in it could disagree, it’s just all to easy to access. Any barrier in the way of that I think is good.
    If that is a blow for the most powerful, but corrupt and life destroying industries on the planet, then I think that’s a good thing!

  7. IJ Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    quote “People in the UK spend on average 87 hours looking at porn” unqote

    87 hours a day?



  8. TiredGeek Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    I think that horse has already bolted, quite a bit late with the stable door….
    Nowadays kids just send pictures of themselves to each other on their mobiles, home made porn, and I think a whole lot more worrying than some consenting adults showing their bits.
    What is more worrying than all that though is what is gonna happen next, when they introduced laws to catch terrorists the local councils started using the same powers to spy on people letting their dogs foul the pavement. Like Barry Collins says, what’s next to be “filtered”, anything anti-government by any chance?

  9. Steve Cassidy Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    If they use the “algorithms” we’ve mentioned here before, which underpin Vodafone’s alleged adult filter and Google Instant search, then the censored internet will be a hilarious idiocy, drawing attention to precisely the matters that it’s supposed to keep from those innocent little eyes.

    And I wonder how happy and smug the Bayesian censors will feel when an abused child, looking on the Net for resources and help to escape their abusing relatives, finds that the electronic censor mercilessly shops them to the very person they are trying to escape?

  10. Chatan Says:
    December 21st, 2010 at 9:21 am

    I have no issue with an ISP offering the ability to filter content – Apple do it with their App Store to an extent, and Vodafone do it on their mobiles. And both of them can be opted out (Apple – don’t buy them!).

    Steve – you are totally right. It’s the extremes who seem to have all the say in the press. Seems like the average Joe is never asked because they won’t create headlines

  11. Stuart Says:
    December 21st, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Wouldn’t opt in be a better option? If you’re a concerned parent or not very technical then I don’t see it being a problem if you call your ISP and say block the content that’s not suitable for children. Any blanket ban is the slippery slope to more widespread censorship of other types of sites the Government want banned, once the technology is in place it won’t be that hard to keep adding URLs to the list.

  12. GW Says:
    December 21st, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Er, snuff movies don’t exist. they are an urban myth, you fool. Just when you were writing a half-sensible article, you blew it. You can take the man out of the Daily Mail…

  13. james016 Says:
    December 21st, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    ISPs say it’s impossible

  14. Steve Cassidy Says:
    December 21st, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    GW: not much of an arab blog reader then, I guess. Plenty of access to footage of real deaths by that route, as with various western websites whose names I won’t put in this comment. Also, for “ben” (comment 7): can you say on what basis you think that the Orange/Voda etc content filters “work well”? My experience with them is that they are inconsistent, bizarre, and dangerously intrusive in perfectly legitimate areas of civilised life.

  15. Peter Ward Says:
    December 22nd, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    I always find it amusing that the right whinge, who are all for us “taking responsibility” and for “shrinking the state” if it means cutting taxes for the rich, and making profits for their allies, are so keen on government intervention when it doesn’t interfere with profits.

    Is porn bad for young children? Probably.
    Drinking alcohol is bad for kids. We (society) have laws to discourage and punish those who allow the young to drink.

    We do NOT ban all alcoholic drinks. We rely on parents to protect their children from booze. Most do.

    The same mechanism can work for Porn and as JH has noted above most modern OS\ Browser combinations have the capability of blocking most porn most of the time. This is an area where we really can take responsibility as individuals.

  16. Stephen Says:
    December 23rd, 2010 at 5:42 am

    @Steve Cassidy

    Hear hear, if we’re basing this on the mobile blocking scheme we’ll have to ring up with a credit card (to confirm my age and not at all to get scammed by a call centre worker) to get twitter (no kidding — the last time I had to ring up to get a phone unblocked T-Mobile’s opt out filter was blocking twitter)

  17. Peter Says:
    December 23rd, 2010 at 10:04 am

    How exactly is this censoring to be achieved? It will have to be some software algorithm as there are far too many sites out there for any sensible team of humans to vet one way or the other. This will lay us open to the nonsense a few years ago when all mention of Scunthorp were blocked by one such automatic system. How will it differentiate between porn and serious medical sites and so on?

  18. clckmss Says:
    December 23rd, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Evidently it does

  19. Anthony Says:
    December 23rd, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I take it that ‘porn’ refers to the human reproductive system in action, and not to the material produced for juvenile entertainment, in the form of films, videogames and such, depicting and involving torture, death and destruction?

  20. simbr Says:
    December 23rd, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    I assume there would be a combination of whitelists, blacklists and heuristics based on keywords (goodbye Scunthorpe) and image analysis (goodbye pig farms) – inevitably leading to false positives and negatives and lots of extra work for the ISPs (or some nominated third party) in moving them to the relevant list.

  21. Joel Spencer Says:
    December 23rd, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    I for one wouldn’t mind an age rating system (sort of like that on games sites for mature videos, though a less annoying one where it remembered your age would be nice) but I thought the proposed method was by changing adult websites to an opt-in system that could potentially then be used to defame. The rating system would have to be enforced by the content providers (not ISPs) with fines levied for non compliance to avoid governments taking too much control I feel. What ever happened to the proposed .xxx site extension too, surely that would be a good start? Sort of like how currently any site I see with .ru tends to be virus infected.

  22. Paul Says:
    December 24th, 2010 at 6:03 am

    Looks like Internet Mens Monkey Magazine could fall foul then.
    A Method for controlling your home network is Network Magic by Cisco
    Let you set the hours individual PCs can access the internet. It will also lock your wireless router to prevent anyone else joining the network even with the correct password & it can only be unlocked by the master PC.

  23. Paul Says:
    December 24th, 2010 at 6:11 am

    \You could always go for the American approach – scan for the amount of pink on a web page. Anything about 5% gets banned. Only problem with this approach is when the company supplying you with Cutting Fluid uses Pink Barrels.
    Bang… did I just shoot myself in the foot, they had banned the domain. Nothing could get through & it was a pain to get it removed.

  24. Honest John Says:
    December 26th, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    The internet is thorn in all governments backsides, be it so-called democracies to communist nations to dictatorships.

    Whoever controls the flow of information, controls people.

    The kings and queens of centuries gone by did not manage to keep their power of people by caring and providing for them, isolation and lack of communication is what helped keep their hold of the people and lands they ruled. The moment isolation was no longer possible and communication became far too easy for the comman man, the royals across the globe started losing their grip on the power of the collective mind.

    The governments of today are not so different. Wikileaks is a big jumpstart to a future of massive censorship which governements would use the pretext of “protecting our nations interests and our people from harm”. This internet adult material censorship has come at a very coincidental time with what damage Wikileaks has been doing to some of the greatest pro-democratic nations of the world etc going on.

    Once the filters are in place by law, then these filters will be expanded slowly and surly behind the scenes. Freedom of information will become a farce.

    Unfortunately the majority of people in our great nation are not thinkers, are not open-minded and are easily swayed by the governments propaganda, and the gov will feed on this luxury quite happily to make certain that the children of tomorrow are still under the influence of the government and free thought should never challenge the powers which we work our arses off for to only pay them nearly half our earnings.

    I was, I am, and I will always be a proud briton, but I am only one of a small minority of people who really understand the meaning behind many of these slowly trickled-through actions, how sad.

    When the television tax came through, it was only supposed to be a small amount and was primarily to cover emergency broadcasts etc. in the nations interests after the war, but little did people think that this tax would remain and to this day even if you dont watch BBC channels, just because you have a television with a tuner you have to pay, even Sky are unable to deactivate BBC channels at your request, but they can easily deactivate the movie channels, what a farce. Stealth tax.

    Fuel tax, oh yes, in the interests of our beloved environment we need some money to cover the costs of pollution etc. Oh gosh, who would have thought that nearly 60% of the cost of a litre of petrol goes into their pockets, I would love to know exactly how much percentage of that is actually used for environmental means.

    Oh the list goes on and on.

    Remember, if we let one thing through, without thinking ahead, we are putting our children and grandchildren through generations of oppressive taxation/censorships.

    It always starts with a logical moral reason which the people of our land buy into, but these people are not open-minded enough to see how wide this small door will become for decades to come.

  25. Kelly Says:
    December 30th, 2010 at 2:23 am

    With all things being equal, there is no reason the ISP’s could not club together and within their terms and conditions state:-

    There is no guaranteed way to stop some of the material because it only takes one nutter to get around all the safety nets.

  26. Peter Watts Says:
    January 5th, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    There are a few things that need to be stated about this.Firstly ISP filtering is not censorship. What is being proposed would be a voluntary thing people could opt to use. It would therefore be an additional tool that people could choose to use.

    Next it is possible and ISPs are already obligated by law to filter out child porn (and that is censorship, but does anyone want to object to that here?). A voluntary version of this filtering technology can be extended to cover other sites.

    Perhaps surprisingly this idea has support from the porn industry itself. Yep you read that right, according to a Times article in June 2010, the porn industry wants this to happen.

    Obviously, it will be imperfect, but can develop over time like other technologies do. What it would provide is an additional tool for people affecting all the web-enabled devices in a home, library, school, coffee shop etc in one go.

    Of course, some men may object, especially if they use porn without their spouses knowing. How will they answer the ‘Honey, I want us to use this new ISP filter’ statement then.


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