David Cameron

David Cameron

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his plans to push forward with what he sees as measures to protect the “innocence of our children” from the “corrosive” influence of Internet porn.

The UK Government proposes that all ISPs should by October be forcing new subscribers to opt-in to being able to view pornographic content on the Internet.

Very laudable aims and ones that most right-thinking people would agree with. Pornography is for adults and exposing young minds to Internet content that they are unable to fully understand and for which they have no frame of reference is damaging to them and those they subsequently come into contact with.

But how effective will this filtering be?

First of all we have to ask what criteria will be used to define what is and what is not porn. Of course all responsible porn domain operators could either register their domains as adult or include Meta information in their web pages to indicate adult content and so enable search engines and ISPs to prevent the sites being displayed. In the unlikely event that this were to be the route taken the administration of the definitive list of pornographic sites would be a huge and endless task. Is government going to pay for that?

The answer of course is “No”.

What’s more likely to happen is that a block list of some sites will be cobbled together and the rest of the internet will be screened semi-automatically using criteria dreamt up by Whitehall or some very expensive consultants. What is or isn’t blocked is likely to be arbitrary at best and ludicrous at worst with some sites being blocked that aren’t pornographic and other hardcore sites being carefully constructed to slip through the block.

Furthermore it’s likely that legitimate business, both adult and non-adult will suffer; And once the legitimate, regulated businesses have closed up and gone away the more profitable, unregulated and altogether more dangerous businesses who circumvent laws and regulation will spring up.

And what then? Could a future government decide to block access to other content?

In the immediate future we also have to ask what the government’s porn block would do to sites like Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr. All three have a large amount of adult material, posted by users and regulated only by watchful users who report extreme content to the website’s operators. Will the block stop all content from these sites too?

Imposing a block on pornographic material can be counter-productive by engendering a false sense of security in parents and others in charge of our children. If the attitude begins to prevail that “It’s OK they can browse unsupervised because we’re opted in to the porn block” then our children will be left alone to explore the web.

Even if the block works perfectly to filter porn and allow though non-adult content kids already use proxy servers to access sites that have been blocked to then, for example using social networking from school. So what’s to stop them using proxies to access porn, after all remember when you were a teenager? If your parents said no the first thing you did was try to work out a way to get what you had just been denied.

The Internet has been described as the Wild West, unregulated and dangerous to the unwary. Yes there are dangers but common sense and taking care when you are online reduce the risks of browsing this allegedly lawless place to a minimum. And as for your children, you wouldn’t let them wander off into the Nevada desert on their own now would you? Responsible parents supervise their kids wherever possible and advise them so that they are aware of possible dangers which has to be far more useful than relying on flaky and ill-conceived filters and blocks.

In a related but rather more focused move they also aim to make possession of images “depicting rape” to be illegal. Of course we deplore the creation of any porn that either depicts a scenario of rape or indeed documents an actual rape we can see pitfalls with this section of the legislation too. In the same way that members of the BDSM community feared a witch hunt where their own, consensual and private images were declared potentially criminal who is to say what will be deemed as depicting rape. Is feigned reluctance enough to be said to depict rape or will it be seen as part of a couple’s foreplay?

With tabloid support and a government looking to improve its approval ratings in time for elections in two years can we be sure that common sense will prevail? You can make your own mind up on that one but let me leave you with this.

David Cameron has said that if there are technical challenges to making the porn block work then the ISPs should apply their “best minds” to ensure the block is delivered and in-place in time for his October deadline. In which case I want a space ship with warp drive and despite all the technical obstacles I think NASA should apply its best minds to make sure I have one by 2020.

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