When the large ISPs rolled out their poorly-named “porn filters” in December, they all arrived missing an essential feature: a tool to check whether each filter blocked a specific URL or not. Without these tools from Sky, BT or TalkTalk, anti-filter campaigners resorted to using the only such service available, which happened to be from O2. O2, being a mobile provider, had actually been filtering content since 2004, but its URL checker (urlchecker.o2.co.uk) had largely been ignored for several years.
The storm of abuse that O2 received in December was therefore quite unfair: it was targeted, not for being the worst offender, but for being the most transparent of all the mobile and broadband Internet providers. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before O2 took its URL checking service offline; and although the company denies this was done to stop people sending angry tweets, the page is still offline today, displaying the message:
Our URL checker is currently unavailable as we are updating the site.
Perhaps the provider really is updating the site… but let’s not hold our breaths. If I were a manager at O2, I probably would have reached the same conclusion: there’s no point being transparent when transparency is bad for business. Every other ISP, watching O2‘s support Twitter ID get bombarded during early December, will have also decided not to offer an online URL checker. Quite simply, market forces will punish any provider that breaks from the pack and provides information about how its filter works, and which sites it blocks.
It is therefore disgraceful that the government allowed the filtering to be put in place without mandating provider transparency. Countless sites have undoubtedly been blocked in error, but it is very difficult to find out which ones are blocked by which providers.
Sadly, we cannot expect Claire Perry MP, who is responsible for this mess, to call for this problem to be remedied. Transparency will reveal the huge extent of overblocking, which will be as bad for her career as it is for ISPs’ reputations.
It is up to the public to expose this deliberate suppression of information, and to shame government into action. If you care about Internet freedom, please tweet BT, TalkTalk, Sky, David Cameron and Claire Perry to ask why we cannot easily see what is being censored; and also ask O2 when their URL checker will be back online. Use the #CensoredUK hashtag in your tweets, and we will retweet them!
Poor old Claire Perry. Having championed Internet censorship child-protection filters, and become a hero to the Tory right and Daily Mail, she appears to have pissed off much of the remainder of the online public. She has steadfastly denied that filters are prone to massive and eternal overblocking, calling such claims “fanciful” only a few days ago. But, as long predicted, overblocking is a huge problem, and as anybody with an understanding of the technology can explain to Perry and Cameron, it can’t ever be adequately resolved: the problem is just too big.
Perry and Cameron have regularly insisted that ISPs can be left to run filters without need for regulation. So it must be enormously embarrassing for them that the UK Government this week announced plans to introduce – in a small way – regulation. In response to an avalanche of news about inappropriate blocking – from ChildLine to the Samaritans – the government has announced it will create a white-list of sites that must not be blocked.
The clear motivation for this is to avoid any more embarrassing news stories highlighting how inaccurate the filters are. The government can’t hope to prevent overblocking any more than the ISPs can, but at least they can ensure that key UK charities are not blocked. This announcement is an admission of failure.
But this move should not be greeted as a step in the right direction. In order to create and manage the white-list, the government needs to create – at taxpayer expense – an Internet censorship team, albeit one with a limited role, for the time being. The new list cannot possibly hope to resolve the majority of blocking errors – all it can do is ensure a small, elite list of websites remains accessible to under-18s.
Overblocking isn’t the main problem, filters are
So overblocking will continue – it just won’t attract as much media attention as before. But even if it could be resolved, this white-list avoids the critical concerns about the filters: overblocking isn’t the real problem. The problem is – still – the filters themselves.
The government still insists on perpetuating the dangerous myth that children are in danger online, and that the answer to this danger is censorship. It continues to pretend there is evidence that allowing children to explore the Internet can be harmful. It continues to ignore the fact that parental control software for PCs has been available for years, and child-friendly tablets are now on sale everywhere, making the need for further filtering redundant. It continues to spread the myth that denying children access to information is safe, rather than harmful. It continues to blur the very important line between young adults and pre-pubescent children. It continues to provide abusers a tool with which to deny their wife, husband, child, access to vital information.
The government admitted this week that the filtering programme has failed. But they maintain the pretence that the failure is a small one, and can be easily repaired. A government white-list will resolve these problems just as well as a severed limb can be repaired using a Post-It note.
If the UK government truly cares about child welfare, it will defend the right of teenagers to freely access the Internet, and it will educate parents as to how they can protect and educate their younger children. Of course they won’t: and meanwhile, they have created a new censorship function within government that we should be watching very carefully indeed.
While browsing some old emails, I discovered the invitation to Claire Perry’s “let’s censor the Internet” committee (or a “parliamentary inquiry into the online protection of children”, as it was formally known). The email begins with this delightful intro:
“Dear Mr Barnett – apologises for sending this via gmail unfortunately the Parliament I.T. systems do not allow us to send and recieve emails to strictly broadband. I do hope the below is something you can consider. Please respond using my gmail email. Many thanks, …”
Parliament, like many large organisations, had already implemented filtering on its Internet connections; how many children are protected by this mechanism is unclear, but obviously MPs cannot be trusted to have open access to the network.
Perry has spent the past two years arguing vigorously that overblocking rarely occurs and is easily dealt with; yet evidence to the contrary was already staring her in the face. If Parliament can’t even get a porn filter right, how is the entire country supposed to do so?
Defending the right of people to publish and watch porn is an uphill battle. Nice, “liberal” people aren’t always as liberal as they think, and many think sexual imagery is a Bad Thing, and shouldn’t fall under the umbrella of free expression. So there was a strong boost for the anti-censorship movement in December when the UK “porn filters” were rolled out, and it turned out that they weren’t really much to do with porn at all.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a genuine free speech lobby in this country (it was the discovery of this fact that led me to set up the Sex & Censorship campaign). However, the filters blocked such broad areas of content that far more vocal groups have been spurred into opposition, and have strengthened the anti-censorship movement. The revelation that a number of gay sites had been blocked, apparently in error, led to outrage from the LGBT community and its supporters. And the inclusion of Sex Education as a category that parents could prevent their teens from accessing caused outrage among many commentators.
The animal protection organisation World Wildlife Fund adopted the panda as its symbol, rather than some endangered species of lizard or beetle, because pandas look cuddly. Saving ugly creatures isn’t a cause that many people will donate to. In the world of anti-censorship campaigning, LGBT and sex education causes are the panda; and yet, many of the “uglier” blocked categories should be just as much a cause for concern as the “pretty” ones. But if people accept that some expression can be censored, then free speech is lost.
Many of the blocked categories have been ignored because they don’t upset any large lobby group, but they should be cause for concern. I have seen no defence, for example for “sites that give information on illegal drugs”. Yet such sites save lives, and fill a role that, in a more sane world, would be carried out by government. The site pillreports.com, for example, is a database of ecstasy tablets on the market. As the site says: ‘Pills sold as “Ecstasy” often include other, potentially more dangerous, substances such as methamphetamine, ketamine and PMA.’ Filtering of drug information doesn’t protect anyone, but simply enforces an anti-drug morality. If allowed to continue, this filtering will doubtless cost teenage lives.
“Sites that promote self-harm” may make for good Daily Mail headlines, but people in distress most need a community of people who understand them. Isolating troubled young people from each other can only be a recipe for disaster. “Sites that describe guns” are also on the list, and illustrate the constant confusion between expression and the physical world. America’s gun lobbyists try to claim that “guns don’t kill people”; this is patent nonsense. Guns do kill people: but there’s no evidence that pictures or descriptions of guns do, and in fact guns are shown daily on TV, often in glamorised ways, without any evidence that this leads to real-world violence.
The option to block social networking sites is perhaps one of the most sinister of all. Depriving children of social contact may be classified as emotional abuse, and yet, because of the endless panic over “online grooming”, many parents may exercise this option. The best way to open a child to the possibility of grooming is to keep them ignorant of the real world. The filters will harm children.
The “file sharing” category is not there to protect children at all, but to protect media corporations from having their content pirated, and probably the result of some clever lobbying activity. Piracy is the problem of the media and entertainment industry, and is a poor excuse for censorship.
The catch-all category of “tasteless and obscene” is another one that preserves conservative ideas of morality, rather than attempt to protect children. Among other things, it includes the ludicrous concept of “how to commit murder”; one would think any teenager conversant with basic physics, chemistry or biology would be able to work that out. Presumably the banning of science classes in school must follow. This category also includes “bathroom humour”, though one must suspect that children can work out fart jokes by themselves, without help from the Internet.
The list goes on and on. In every case, it seems that blocking content can do more damage to child development than the content itself. The category that most divides people is that of hate speech: “sites that encourage the oppression of people or groups based on their race, religion, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation or nationality”. The idea that racism, homophobia and other prejudices can be dealt with by censorship has been fashionable for a few decades, and is attractive to people who dislike prejudice. And yet it is a false promise. Censorship of words that might offend minorities has never solved any underlying problem. Discourse is the solution to bigotry, and this must include angry, “offensive” discourse, however unpleasant it is. Politically correct cures for prejudice do not work; indeed, they leave problems to fester and get worse.
This isn’t to say that prejudice should be left alone: education, discussion, debate, argument and, most of all, leadership are essential. We have a government that wants to protect us from “hate speech” on the one hand, while hinting on the other that immigrants are a threat to our society. Hate can be spread without using hate speech.
And those who think that censorship introduced for “good” reasons will not then be abused are naive in the extreme. The core problem with censorship is that it will always be abused by those with power. Once it is accepted that hateful speech can be suppressed, then the definition of hateful speech will grow inexorably until it is unrecognisable.
Voltaire said: “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Those who are tempted to draw acceptable lines for Internet filtering are missing the point. In a free society, there can be no acceptable lines.
An article on anti-sex feminism by Jerry Barnett, founder of the Sex & Censorship campaign, which was published this week on the Feminist and Women’s Studies (UK & Ireland) blog:
Being in my late-40s, I’m one of a generation whose mothers embraced second-wave feminism – or Women’s Lib at it was better known at the time – in the late-1960s and early-70s. I came of age reading Spare Rib and other feminist magazines my Mum left lying around, and remember the importance of sexual liberation to the feminists of those days. In fact, those magazines constituted the first “porn” I encountered… (click here to read the full article).
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:
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.
The UK video-on-demand regulator, ATVOD, has announced a conference on child protection, to be held in London on 12th December. In an open letter, below, we raise concerns with the nature of the conference and some of the speakers to be featured. (UPDATE: a response was received on 19th November, and has been appended to the end of this post).
18 November 2013
Open letter to: Julia Hornle, ATVOD board member
Cc: Sue Berelowitz – Deputy Children’s Commissioner
I am writing with regard to the ATVOD-organised child protection conference taking place in London on 12th December. I am informed that you selected the conference speakers. I write on behalf of a number of people who are greatly concerned that the conference line-up is not altogether suitable for an event whose purported goal is to determine what best can be done to protect British children.
The concerns are twofold: first, the lack of expertise related to the effects of content on viewers, including children and teenagers, and second the inclusion of two speakers whose beliefs seem out of place at a conference dedicated to child protection.
On the first point: How children and teenagers are affected by what they see online is widely debated. A great deal of research has been done over several decades, and a good deal has yet to be done. There is still however no conclusive evidence to support how harm, if any, is done by sexual, violent, or other material and it would therefore seem premature to suggest remedies until the existence and nature of any problem is properly understood.
For this reason, it is puzzling that the conference speaker list includes no expertise on this matter, and yet plenty of expertise does exist. It would seem suitable to include a child psychologist, or somebody who has directly tried to research the effects of viewing such material.
A number of suitable individuals come to mind, but we might suggest:
Dr Guy Cumberbatch is a chartered psychologist who has been commissioned previously by Ofcom to conduct research on this very subject area. It would seem sensible that the conference should be informed by an expert in child psychology before coming to any conclusions.
Dr Clarissa Smith is Professor of Sexual Cultures at Sunderland University, and (along with colleagues) is conducting the most exhaustive study to date into the effects of pornography on its users.
Sharon Girling is a former senior Police officer with national responsibility, now an independent consultant, and probably the UK’s leading authority on online child abuse imagery, and protecting abused children who are identified from such imagery.
It may be dangerous to rush towards policy-making without input, at such a critical event, from people such as the above. As history shows, rashly drafted laws and regulations might disrupt existing child protection activities, and thus have the reverse effect to that originally intended.
On the second point: we note with concern the inclusion of the following two speakers:
Paula Hall is billed as Chair of the Association for the Treatment of Sex Addiction and Compulsivity. However, there is widespread skepticism among mental health professionals that “sex addiction” is even a genuine condition, or whether it simply stigmatises normal sexual response. Although “hypersexuality” was previously accepted as a psychiatric condition (as once was homosexuality), it has now been removed from the most recent manual of psychiatry, DSM-V. It is worrying that you consider what many believe to be quack psychiatry to be relevant to this discussion.
Julia Long is a spokesperson for the morality group Object, which campaigns against all forms of sexual expression, whether consumed by children or adults. Object frequently attempt to link adult material to sexual violence, although they have no evidence to back this point of view. They have claimed (without evidential foundation) that adults are harmed by accessing pornography, reading lads’ mags and visiting strip clubs. Again, their inclusion seems incongruous at a conference aimed at protecting children, a subject in which Object and Ms Long herself appear to have no expertise or prior interest.
The anomalies in the conference line-up have led to questions as to whether this event is about child protection or Internet censorship. I look forward to your response, and hope that you can put minds at rest regarding your goals in setting up the conference panels.
UPDATE: the following response was received on 19 November:
Emailed on Behalf of Julia Hornle
Dear Mr Barnett,
Thank you for your letter and suggestions for the joint ATVOD-QMUL conference on 12th December.
We have finalised the composition of the panels and speakers. I’m familiar with the work of the speakers you suggest and have no doubt that they also have interesting contributions to make, perhaps at a different conference. Please let me know if you are organising such an event in the future.
The Sex & Censorship campaign is pleased to announce that Jerry Barnett, the campaign founder, will appear as a keynote speaker at a conference on censorship, called to mark 30 years since the Video Recordings Act introduced a regime of video censorship to Britain. The event, titled 1984: Freedom and Censorship in the Media – Where Are We Now?, will take place at Sunderland University on April 8-9 2014.
The organisers have released an excellent two-minute video to promote the event, which you can see below. Please watch and share! Further information about the conference can be found at the event web site.