British Government Considering ISP Censorship Mandates

David Cameron (Source: The Guardian)

Is it the job of the British government to legislate ISP-level censorship of adult content? On the heels of an April parliamentary inquiry, Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be giving the question a disconcerting amount of consideration, at the potential expense of double-entendre web content everywhere. Says technology news site Computer Act!ve:

The Government is considering whether to force internet service providers (ISPs) to introduce network-based filtering measures to block porn.

Despite the technical difficulties this would pose, it appears David Cameron is taking these calls seriously and is expected to begin a consultation process in the next few weeks.

April’s cross-party inquiry calls on government mandate, rather than voluntary efforts by ISPs or parents to implement opt-in filtering, as the means to stem underage access to adult sites, and prevent what they consider the “negative impact” of this content:

The Inquiry concluded that the Government, while urging ISPs to reach a collective solution to introduce single account network-level filters with Opt-In functionality for adult content, should also seek backstop legal powers to intervene should the ISPs fail to implement an appropriate solution.

We also concluded that the Government should consider a new regulatory structure for online content, with one regulator given a lead role in the oversight and monitoring of internet content distribution and the promotion of internet safety initiatives.

The report does acknowledge witness testimony pushing for self-regulation over what they refer to as “more draconian regulation,” though these comments are centered around economics, rather than the ethics of censorship.

In another Computer Act!ve piece, Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group expresses deeper concerns:

Default blocks are a form of censorship. If placed in networks, they could create a national infrastructure for censorship. We welcome a consultation but default filternets are awful. They block a wide range of innocent material; and nobody should be advocating broader and simpler censorship.

All the independent evidence has pointed to giving parents simple tools and choices. There is no need to create network-level censorship in the name of a porn opt-in.

Mic Wright of Kernel Magazine phrases the issue a bit more bluntly:

The coalition is launching a national consultation today on an idea which would, they claim, “give parents more control over material their children view online”. Well, guess what? Parents already have that: it’s called the off switch.

There’s also the option of not putting an unsupervised computer in your child’s bedroom, or installing software to restrict the sites they can access.

In addition to the fundamental problem of substituting governmental requirements for deliberate parenting decisions — nominally because of the committee’s findings that many parents are confused and have trouble operating their own in-home filters — such a mandate runs into technological difficulties as well.

Generalized filters are notoriously difficult to run without cutting out relatively innocent content alongside the targeted pornography. The eternal search for creative domain names and comic titles has run the gamut of double entendres. Garth Ennis’s Dicks, for example, while certainly chock full of the sort of content Ennis known for, is hardly pornography. And how would an automatic system respond to a site promoting something called American Virgin, with segments such as “Head,” “Going Down,” and “Sixty-Nine”?

Ultimately, it is up to parents to protect, or preferably educate their children about adult-focused content. Government intervention inevitably results in overly broad restrictions and censorship.

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Joe Izenman is a freelance writer and musician in Tacoma, Washington. He owns a lot of comics and he’s pretty sure someone, somewhere would be offended by more than a few of them.