David Cameron’s announcement of an Internet filter to “protect children” has raised great concern this year; and yet, as I wrote following the announcement, the filter is merely a first step towards Internet censorship: I referred to it as “Internet Censorship 1.0”. The filter is not a legal requirement, but a voluntary agreement between the government and ISPs; but it was inevitable that legislation would follow. And indeed it has: the Online Safety Bill is a private member’s bill which is about to have its second reading in the House of Lords.
A casual reader might assume it simply refers to the filtering system already discussed, but in fact it contains something far more serious: an attempt to introduce a mandatory UK Internet block-list. This historic move would truly put the UK in the same camp as China and Iran: the government, or more likely, unelected regulators, would deem a site to be inappropriate for viewing by the British public, and it would vanish from our view of the Internet. Below is the key text from the bill, with my comments in bold.
(1) Internet service providers must provide to subscribers an internet access service which excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have been fulfilled. Note that “adult content” is a very broad term. This blog is already considered “adult content” by some UK mobile networks.
(2) Where mobile telephone network operators provide a telephone service to subscribers, which includes an internet access service, they must ensure this service excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have been fulfilled.
(3) The conditions are— Now watch carefully…
(a) the subscriber “opts-in” to subscribe to a service that includes adult content; This simply puts the existing filter plans into law.
(b) the subscriber is aged 18 or over; and The ISP must age-check the subscriber before allowing them to opt in – this already happens on mobile networks. The juicy bit is next:
(c) the provider of the service has an age verification policy which meets the standards set out by OFCOM and which has been used to confirm that the subscriber is aged 18 or over What does this mean? Let’s break it down:
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Clause 3(c) means that even if the user has proved their age and opted in to see “adult content”, the ISP must only allow them to do so if the service meets content standards as set by the media regulator Ofcom. Each ISP can’t, of course, check every site on the Internet. Instead, the only technical solution is to block any service that appears to provide adult material, unless it is on an Ofcom-approved list.
Does such a list exist? Yes: Ofcom has already delegated the power to regulate online video services to a private organisation called ATVOD. ATVOD requires video services to register (and pay), and to comply with a series of UK-specific content guidelines. How many adult services comply to ATVOD? At present, around 20, and most of these are fairly soft, and are mostly linked to existing adult TV channels.
There are millions of porn sites in the world. There are many million more sites that contain sexual imagery, sexual chat, sex education material or other content that might (according to some people) not be suitable for under-18s. Under this bill, ISPs would be breaking the law if they failed to block a site containing “adult content”, and so if a service is in doubt, it will be blocked, to be on the safe side. As noted above, massive over-blocking has already occurred on mobile services.
There is no partial step into Internet censorship; either a block list exists, or it doesn’t. Once created, it can be used for any purpose; David Cameron has already hinted at blocking “extremist” sites. And “extreme”, like “adult content” is wide open for interpretation. Although we generally believe we live in a free country, we have always been a censored one. The Internet blew a hole in the power of the state to decide what can be published and what can be seen. It is no surprise that the state wants to reclaim that power.
Any step to create a UK block list must be opposed by anyone who believes in free expression. We must ask our MPs: why does Britain, almost alone in the democratic world, see the need to implement such a measure? Why are British people more in need of “protection” than Americans or other Europeans? As a private member’s bill, the Online Safety Bill may well fail, but the measures are most likely to reappear in an official government Communications Bill. We have time to protect our Internet freedom, but we don’t have long. What can you do? We will be making an announcement shortly. Please join our mailing list to receive alerts.