The Closing of the Net  "original and valuable"  Times Higher Education

Can Britain slide in a filtered Internet by the back door of so-called 'parental controls'? It’s not a consultation, it’s a survey.  It has been speeded up so that the government can implement the policy by October. It’s run by a failing department that cannot do its day job.

 The British  government wants to make Internet service providers offer a filtered Internet  to everyone, under the pretext of protecting children.  A  government consultation  on so-called ‘parental controls’ closes this week on Thursday. The policy  proposal  is that Internet Service Providers should put in place filters as a default, only removing them if people specifically ask.

The policy is driven by a government desire to protect children from harmful behaviour and content, but the documentation shows little understanding on the part of the policy makers of what it really entails.

 The ministry that is pushing this is the Department for  Education –this is the very department that is responsible for Britain’s failing schools, and error-prone examination system.  Notably, it has no policy responisbility for the Internet or telecommunications, and it is not clear why it has been allowed to press ahead with a policy that affects the Internet.

 The consultation does not read like any kind of genuine attempt to solicit opinion, rather it reads like an amateurish market survey. It does not seek to understand either the true objectives of such a policy, nor does it seek to know any potential pitfalls. It merely asks respondents to identify whether they are a parent, grandparent or guardian of a child, and simple questions such as whether they are aware that software controls are available from their ISP.

 The filtering proposal follows a report by the MP Claire Perry,  that expressed concerns about the ease with which children can find pornography on the Internet. It was her report that called for filters to put onto Internet access services by default.

 All  aspects of the policy appear very vague, ill-thought-through  and woolly.  Some are interpreting it as an ‘opt-out’ for people who don’t want the filters, but the government document accompanying the proposal is suggesting that people who want to see pornography on the Internet would ‘opt-in’.

 The policy appears to be pushing the default option, on the basis that ‘evidence’ shows that more people would accept the blocks if it is presented to them this way.

 A variation could be to combine these ideas, so that the user is clearly and unavoidably presented with a list of content types that will be blocked unless they choose to unblock them with a simple action such as removing a tick from a box. Evidence shows that giving ‘default' answers like this tends to encourage more people to accept the suggested option, and most ISPs do this for things like virus protection, where there's an obvious benefit to ticking ‘yes'.

 The government is asking the ISPs to implement the default filtering system, at industry’s own cost, with no checks and balances. If industry does not do it, the government says it will legislate.

 This  is all very concerning. Indeed, it is somewhat perverse. Firstly, we can presume that the costs of this will be passed on to all Internet users, those who want the filters and those who don’t (although it’s not clear, it seems that the filters will not be chargeable to those who use them).

 Secondly, industry will carry the can for what is certain to be a highly controversial measure.

 The Internet industry is being left alone  to decide the criteria for what content we can see and what we cannot. There is no indication that the government will provide guidance. This is really perverse. If this filtering is genuinely in the public interest, then the ‘public’ and its elected representatives, should be determining the filters.

 As things stand, the filters are  not even determined  by the ISPs. It is to be assumed, in the absence of an clarification, that the filters will be implemented on the ISP networks ( and are therefore quite different from anti-virus software that is placed on the user's computer). 

The ISPs buy in the filters from commercial companies, who are not necessarily even in the UK. For example, one that I have traced is in the United States. (See How Vodafone censors your Internet ) What's more, the filters do not just block  pornographic content.  They are set up to block political content, different media and organisations, as well as other topics that the software developers have determined, for example, drug use. ( See German 'shitstorm' brewing over Pirate Party school blocks ).

 The filters are set up by hired employees of those companies, who manage databases. The filters are set by criteria that are automated, and difficult to change. If your site is mis-classified, you may have difficulty getting it re-classified, and you may find you lose traffic and business as a result.

Where then is the accountability?

The whole filtering system that the Department of Education is seeking to implement would therefore be an unaccountable set of diverse databases, managed by unknown people in unknown lands. The potential for abuse is high. There are queues of different industries and individuals who are desparate to get access to this form of filtering. Once it is in, the government will find it harder to prevent the filters covering many other aspects of our lives.  It is a form of censorship.

 It’s therefore arguable that the Department for Education is misguided in this policy. The civil servants think it’s a simple matter. Think again.

It would be much better if the government went to legislation. At least then it would be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny and there could be a proper national debate on what kind of Internet we want.

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Respond to the British government consultation on Parental Internet Controls  - deadline for submissions is 6 September 2012.

Tell the government what you think by signing the Open Rights Group petiton.

PS. The producers of child pornography, the really horrible child sexual abuse images, are technically way ahead of the government. They have other means of getting their ghastly material distributed.  This policy  is not the way to stop them.

 

This is an original article from Iptegrity.com. You may re-publish it under a Creative Commons licence, but you should cite my name and provide a link back to iptegrity.com.  Media and Academics – please cite as Monica Horten,  How the  UK could  sneak in  the filtered Internet, 5  September  2012 . Commercial users - please contact me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten, European expert on Internet policy and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics & Political Science. She is an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee on Cross-border flow of Internet traffic and Internet freedom (MSI-INT). She was shortlisted for The Guardian Open Internet Poll 2012. Iptegrity  offers expert insights into Internet policy. Iptegrity has a core readership in the Brussels policy community, and has been cited in the media. Please acknowledge Iptegrity when you cite or link.  For more, see IP politics with integrity

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