A Bill was introduced in the Lords yesterday – Online Safety Bill – thats aim is to force all UK ISPs and mobile phone operators to block access to pornography at network level unless the customer buying access to the internet or mobile network is 18 or over and asks them to remove the block through an opt-in mechanism.
It is all about ‘protecting our children’, as our most of these types of legislative proposals. A laudable aim, and indeed Lady Howe, who introduced the bill, said her bill would will help parents protect their children from accessing pornography. But what is pornography and who will decide what is and isn’t pornography or ‘ hard core pornography’ : – ‘I know it when I see it’. Will ISPs etc just be told to block the .xxx domain, or will there be a dedicated hotline for people to report ‘porn’ sites to be assessed by a group – at some cost – to them add to a porn blacklist for ISPs to block? Will one image on a site that is primarily concerned with non-porn content lead the whole site being blocked or just access to that particular page URL?
This immediately throws up issues on overblocking and underblocking that have plagued US legislative attempts such as the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA) which also set out to restrict access by those under 18 to harmful material (porn) contained on ‘commercial websites’. COPA made it a crime for those ‘commercial websites’ to make material that is ‘harmful to minors’ publicly available, with those found guilty of breaking the law facing up to six months imprisonment, and up to $50,000 in fines. The Law was eventually found to be unconstitutional, as it was not the least restrictive means of accomplishing the government’s objectives, and violated the First Amendment rights of US website operators. A similar law connected with filtering / blocking access to such content in public libraries was Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which also fell foul of the US constitution, because the potential overblocking and underblocking could ‘chill’ online speech.
What Lady Howe, and Conservative MP, Claire Perry, who supports the bill want to do is to regulate the internet. Lady Howe says “Historically, most internet content has escaped regulation. A laudable industry-wide effort in the UK resulted in the Clean Feed system that blocks illegal child abuse imagery, but there has always been a reluctance to block, or limit access to other forms of adult material due to the international nature of internet content.”
Claire Perry adds “We don’t accept this situation with any other form of media. Our TV viewing is guided by clear Ofcom advice, our cinema screens are subject to British Film Board classifications and High Street hoardings and general print advertising are regulated by the Advertising Standards Agency. And growing internet enabling of household devices and technological convergence – a quarter of TVs sold in the US are now internet enabled – means that the difference in regulation is going to come crashing into our living rooms.”
So, when faced with these problems, the solution – as for all politicians who want to play their ‘gotta protect the children card’ (and let’s not kid ourselves, trying to make a stand against such measures takes a brave politician these days) is let’s regulate. The party that bleats on about giving power back to the individual, has decided that parents can’t be trusted to protect their own children by installing filters on their computers etc – research showed parents felt intimidated by the ‘apparent complexities’ of setting up their own filter – so the solution is to censor. I’m sorry, but if I really cared about setting up filters on my child’s computer, I’d get over that intimidation.
Indeed, It is good to see we seem to aligning ourselves with countries such as Egypt, whose Minister of Telecommunications and Information Technology announced recently that the government there will be putting a plan in action to block all porn on the Internet. Now obviously Lady Howe will argue that what she is proposing is very different because the person buying the broadband or mobile access can just ask them to remove the block. I don’t see it that way. She still wants to legislate for the default position for accessing internet content from the UK to be porn free – exactly what Egypt is proposing.
I presume Lady Howe foresees BT using their Cleanfeed system to implement the bill for its customers – and for those service providers reselling their wholesaled product? I suspect BT will try and resist this, as once again a system set up for one purpose is finding itself the subject of mission creep. And where does it end. What will be blocked next?
I see problems ahead for this bill, not least in the fact that legislating to block any content that is considered legal in this country on an opt-in mechanism could be open to challenge. That said, some mobile phone operators already do exactly what Lady Howe and Claire Perry are requesting. Most 02 customers are asked of credit card age verification before they can access sites or content that 02 has classed as ‘adult’. Whilst well intentioned I can’t help but find this kind of legislative proposal worrying. A good vote winner and if you agree with Lady Howe you might want to sign the Safety Net Petition backed by CARE, Premier and Safer Media at www.safetynet.org.uk