Friday, 26 July 2013

The Great P--- Debate

This post is a round-up of the main points made so far in The Great P--- Debate, following the news on 22 July that online pornography is to be blocked by default.

The Great P--- Debate is rather like a super injunction: we will struggle to talk about what we cannot discuss because the same filters designed to stop you from seeing pornography and discussing simulated rape scenes will also be the ones that keyword search blogs and filter out posts like these, as demonstrated by Paul Bernal's post My porn-blocking blog post got porn-blocked!.

Deborah Orr, in The Guardian phrased the issue as such:
A roar of libertarian outrage greeted David Cameron's announcement this week that the government was going to talk to internet service providers about installing opt-in rather than opt-out filters for pornography, as if computer access to hot and cold running arousal aids was some kind of basic human right. Is this really such a big deal? 
Orr states that it "irks" her that she has had to write her article and that the idea is "perfectly reasonable" but she fails to grasp the real crux of the "libertarian outrage" of the past week. The one thing that should be made very clear is that The Great Porn Debate is not about pornography. It is about censorship, civil liberties, and a damaging misunderstanding of technology and the Internet. 

I have discussed social media based technological misunderstandings and challenges for legislators and shocking ongoing decisions being made in cases related to Twitter and Facebook, but The Great Porn Debate has highlighted this epidemic of technological illiteracy and disregard for civil liberties to a far greater extent. The premise is simple: individuals are to have their Internet search results and direct access to certain websites, on their own private home connections, blocked and filtered at the source by their ISPs (Internet Service Providers also commonly known as "broadband providers").

I have been reluctant to write anything on this issue so far because there are several good blog posts on the matter already. The aforementioned Paul Bernal wrote 10 questions about Cameron's 'new' porn-blocking, which explores important questions such as: what is pornography? Who decides what is covered, and how? and culminates in the key question of whether the action will really address the expressed intention: do you really think these plans will stop the 'corrosion' of childhood?

Tom Pride also explained How Cameron's plans to block on-line porn could also block political sites. This has serious implications because we are then not only blocking pornography but we are also blocking ideas, and with a block in place there is no way for the consumer to know what she does not have access to, because, like with the super injunction, any allusion to it is also blocked.

Jules Mattsson's Tumblr shows how over-zealous filters remove access to websites such as the Queer Youth Network and Marie Stopes, and have the potential to remove access to a series of support and guidance websites that provide information to children and young adults who might not otherwise have access to or knowledge of them, thus continuing to defeat the purpose of protecting and helping "our children". The Open Rights Group, in their discussions with ISPs, have suggested that we are Sleepwalking into Censorship and that the filter may also extend to the following arbitrary areas:
violent material
extremist and terrorist related content
anorexia and eating disorder websites
suicide related websites
alcohol
smoking
web forums
esoteric material
web blocking circumvention tools
But there are far more serious and worrying implications here, and the biggest seems to be that legislators do not understand technology. David Cameron can't protect us from child porn because he doesn't understand the internet (Mic Wright) says an article in The Telegraph, which is in line with another in The Independent: This Government doesn't understand technology. The attempt to block porn proves it (Chris Ward), and The Guardian: Why David Cameron's war on internet porn doesn't make sense (by Tom Meltzer).

The recent misadventures of MP Claire Perry bring us new concerns. Pirate Party UK blog contributor Jerry Barnett has already very eloquently expressed his view on Why is the UK the Most Censored Nation in Europe? and on how Claire Perry's "Porn Filter" Is Internet Censorship v1.0. In this latest post Barnett makes several good points and reveals a "darker side" to this censorship:
UK mobile phone companies already have filtering on their 3G networks: subscribers are required to age-verify their accounts to disable the filter. Numerous cases have been documented of non-adult material being blocked by mobile companies. The obscenity law specialist Myles Jackman tells me that his blog, which tackles legal issues about sexuality, is blocked by some mobile networks. The Open Rights Group reports that the British National Party’s web site was also blocked on some networks. I’m certainly no fan of the BNP, but official censorship of political web sites gives me even more cause for concern.
The same day of that blogpost we saw Perry misunderstand screenshots and hacking, as she took to Twitter to accuse Guido Fawkes of "hosting a link that distributed porn via [her] website". It doesn't take a particularly technical knowledge of hosting, links, or websites to understand that the phrase itself does not actually mean anything as it does not describe a possible action. At the time of writing this these tweets remain online, but the full story has been captured and shared by the Ministry of Truth. Perry's misunderstanding has been widely criticised in the media, as far and wide as blogs such as that of the Adam Smith Institute. Fawkes is now looking to sue.

There will certainly be lots more to say on the topic as its impact is felt and the consequences are noted. In the meantime I recommend following  @PornPanic / Sex and Censorship for more developments.

Updated 27 July to include Open Rights Group information.

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