The phoney war over Cameron’s porn filter

The phoney war over Cameron’s porn filter

Some anti-filter campaigners have just as low a view of personal freedom as the anti-smut brigade.

When UK prime minister David Cameron announced in 2011 that he would be calling on internet service providers (ISPs) to introduce a default ‘porn filter’ for UK customers, there was a lot of scepticism from technology writers and anti-censorship campaigners. Many speculated about the plan’s potential effectiveness, as well as what its true purposes may be. When it was revealed that one of the companies that would oversee the filtering technology was Huawei, a telecommunications firm with allegedly close links to the Chinese government, suspicion turned into outright paranoia. Cameron, it was argued, wasn’t really interested in protecting children from adult material at all: he had designs on the Great Firewall of China.

With the default filter finally seeing the light of day this month – requiring new customers to contact their ISPs if they want to opt-out of the scheme – it would appear that many critics’ worst fears have been realised. Not only did immediate holes appear in its ability to block out porn – an almost instantaneous piece of software was produced which could bypass it, cheekily called ‘Go away Cameron’ – but it also emerged that its mandate went far beyond porn. The filters used by Sky, TalkTalk and BT did not only apply to hardcore pornography but to all manner of adult content, ranging from ‘violent material’ to references to alcohol and smoking, too.

The real outrage, however, came when it was revealed that the filter could also be applied to the worryingly vague category of ‘esoteric material’, which apparently includes sex-education resources, charities, LGBT lifestyle forums and even news sites. Fittingly, the filter even blocked the website of Conservative MP Claire Perry, because it featured her boasting at length about supporting the implementation of a ‘porn’ filter.

Nevertheless, this did not stop many critics rushing to claim that this was censorship not by error, but by design. Internet clicktivists united together under the Twitter hashtag #CensoredUK. A writer for the New Statesman declared that it was ‘not an accident’ that the government was seeking to ban access to Childline, Stonewall and the Samaritans – although for what reason it was banning these things, beyond the presumably suicide-loving wickedness of the Tories, remains unclear. One blogger declared that it was ‘baffling and outrageous’ that ‘BT is keen to pander to the kind of parents who wish to pretend that homosexuality is a form of deviance’.

There are plenty of reasons to object to the ‘porn filter’, regardless of its efficacy. Most disagreeable is the ‘opt-out’ nature, which Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group has argued is the latest example of nudge policy in action. That adults will now have to request politely to be allowed to access the internet as adults is another small, depressing blow for personal freedom. Moreover, the filter gives further official validation of what the Guardian declared back in 2011 to be ‘the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values’. The filter only bolsters the outlook, now embraced across the political spectrum, that all adults need protection from dangerous thoughts and opinions.

The broader problem here, however, is that some of the filter’s biggest critics hold as low a view of adult freedoms as the proponents of the porn filter. As one tech writer noted, the collective outrage against this new censorship did not seem to discriminate between the filter itself and entirely optional blocking measures already offered by ISPs, specifically one’s that ‘block practically everything’ so that parents can safely buy smartphones for young children. For many commentators, it seems, giving parents the freedom to, for instance, stop their child from going on gay forums is up there with the Inquisition. Far from railing against state intrusion into our private internet usage, today’s online freedom fighters are more intent on criticising parents who choose to vet what their kids can access online, dependent entirely on the campaigners’ own perspective of what is appropriate.

Whatever you think of their parenting skills, it is an enormous leap to declare that religious parents not allowing their teenage children to access certain websites is censorship. Such parental choices are no more censorship than refusing to have a TV (or internet access, for that matter). The more important question is surely how free and tolerant the society outside of your wifi connection is.

One of the most striking things to come out of the phoney war over the porn filter is the sentiment among my fellow Generation Y-ers that the ability to bypass existing forms of authority via the internet is the same as challenging them, or even trying to transform them. As the battle over what a truly liberal society looks like rumbles on, the digital natives need to learn a better rallying cry than ‘It’s not fair!’.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.

Picture: Julian Stratenschulte/DPA/Press Association Images

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