News 95% of UK internet is censored?
23rd Feb 2009: We are concerned at news stories today which seem to suggest that 95% of internet access in the UK is censored. Specifically that only 5% of internet access is not filtered using the IWF watch list.
We take censorship very seriously. However, it is always hard for anyone to speak up about censorship without being seen as being in favour of what is being censored. As director of Andrews & Arnold Ltd, and a father of five, I am totally against any sort of child abuse or child pornography, and would be horrified if any of my children suffered any sort of abuse. As a company, we certainly do not want to be seen as encouraging child abusers.
However, the idea of censorship is also a big concern. Censoring the media is the start of a slippery slope, and not something a civilised society should tolerate.
Censorship seems so sensible when it is for something like child pornography. We all know that is wrong and should not be allowed. So why not allow censorship just for that?
The answer is that it won't stop there. Even now, sites are not blocked because of a court order or some formal legal process. Sites are blocked simply because of alleged child pornography. The criteria have already led to the blocking of a picture of an old album cover showing a naked young woman. No court decided the image was in fact illegal, and it is not clear that it is. It is hard to see how it cannot also include classical art or religious images showing naked children.
But what next. Block child porn, good! But presumably block anything terrorist related too, that would be a good idea. Of course, bear in mind, that a picture of a policeman is now seen as something that could help a terrorist. Then, of course, extreme political views should obviously be blocked. What of anything anti-government? People with the wrong views?
It is easy to take the principle just one step further each time and it be totally reasonable. In fact the IWF site says it now covers "criminally obscene and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK". Before you know it you have no freedom of press or freedom of speech. That is why we should not start. The child porn is already illegal and people can be prosecuted, we don't need more of a nanny state.
Of course, it is quite different if individuals choose to select safe search on search engines and set parental controls for their kids access access to the internet, or even chose ISPs that will filter the internet for them. That is a personal choice not the nanny state censoring the media. We're all in favour of people having choices. That is what it is all about.
Not using IWF watch list
The system deployed now is not effective. It blocks web sites that have been reported, and that is all. It causes side effects (see recent wikipedia incident). It does not block ftp access, email, secure web sites, usenet, irc, peer to peer file sharing, or any tunnelled IP to proxies outside the UK, or indeed any number or simple ways around it. The system does not even try to.
Consider if the IWF actually worked 100% as planned. I.e. every web site with alleged illegal content was blocked by every ISP. What then exactly?
- Would there be side effects? Yes! Major sites like wikipedia, google images, youtube, and much more, only need to have one image somewhere which is allegedly illegal. Trying to block parts of these sites causes huge issues and side effects for all concerned. Excluding these sites would mean the censorship was broken and make them the ideal place to host such images.
- Would it stop access to child porn? No! It would not stop email, ftp, https, p2p, usenet, irc, or many other ways to access the same content. Given simple encryptions systems that exist, it never can stop it - at best it just drives it underground and harder to assess and track.
- Would it stop child abuse? No! Obviously not, and it is hard to see how it would even reduce it. One idea is that readily available child porn is positive reinforcement for those trying to justify their own actions. Web access censorship does not stop access to that material, and also creates a separate psychology that it is something secret and underhand which people can find just as re-inforcing. When a recent wikipedia page was blocked, the hits on the page went through the roof with everyone accessing it (bypassing the censorship with ease) to see what the fuss was all about. Accessing something hidden and naughty is going to get people in to this not reduce it.
Why try for 100% of ISPs?
The IWF themselves admit "Certainly images are sold or exchanged in other ways, for example via newsgroups or peer-to-peer" and "The list was never designed to try to stop offenders having access to this content". It will, at best, stop accidental visits to web sites. I use the internet a lot, and have never accidentally come across any child pornography. We cannot understand why the IWF or the government or the NSPCC are campaigning for 100% of UK ISPs to use the IWF list. Surely 0*95% is much the same as 0*100%. It still doing bugger all to stop people accessing this material if they want to. There will always be ISPs that are not technical enough, not prepared to invest in the infrastructure, or take a stand against censorship, so getting to 100% is a massive amount of work and legislation for no real gain and no children helped. That effort and expense could be much better spent actually stopping the content in the first place - something that is the IWF's main role and they do a good job at.
What are the alternatives?
It is hard to say, but at the end of the day real action needs to be taken against child abuse. Not just messing with dodgy images, but actually stopping abusing children. The images being on web sites, and possible money trails, means that they can be investigated. International co-operation is needed. Let's stop the actual problem rather than trying to cover it up, hide it, make it so it can't be seen so everyone feels happier not knowing what is going on underground.
Are we encouraging child abuse?
No. We feel sure anyone wanting access to child porn will have no trouble using the 95% of ISPs that use the IWF and there is no reason for them to come to us specially. We take accusations of illegal activity by customers seriously and co-operate with the police. However, people who believe in human rights and freedom of speech should join up and support us.
At the end of the day, we are no more of a policeman than a power company powering a counterfeit printing press. We provide a utility - we shift IP packets. Using us for anything illegal is a matter for the police to deal with and the criminals concerned, and not for those companies that provide power, water, gas, or internet that happen to allow those activities.