Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Why Cameron's Default Porn Filters Will Herald the End of The Internet as We Know It. Just Ask the Experts in Communist China Who are Designing the Filters

David Cameron is currently succeeding in persuading all the major Internet providers in the UK to turn on automatic porn filters in the internet service to all U.K. consumers by next year. If you don't want your Internet access to be filtered you will have to request your Internet provider to turn off the filter. 

Understandably this may cause you some embarrassment and some annoyance regardless of the reasons you choose to have it disarmed. It is perfectly possible for families to install these filters in their own households at the moment but for inexplicable reasons few are choosing to do this so the nanny state needs to step in. One of the suggestions is that it will only be turned off for periods at a time before it kicks in again automatically. So you may have to constantly produce your ISP with a running log of how often you want to access adult material and/or all the other stuff that the filter will stop you getting access to. In the end you may just think it is less bother to leave the censored internet on all the time and then capitulate to compulsory censorship- Nudge- I think they call it. You just need help form the Government to do the right thing for your children -even if you haven’t got any.

I am not going to waste time arguing the merits or otherwise of pornography on the Internet. If you believe it is a serious problem and that censorship of it is a good thing then nothing I will say is likely to sway you.  I just want to alert you to the costs you will incur to achieve this objective (or rather not achieve it- as it will almost certainly not succeed in limiting access to pornography).  
Many of you will think that porn filters are irrelevant to you because you don't access porn sites. If you think this then you are SERIOUSLY WRONG! I don't believe that Cameron is concerned about people watching pornography in any case. What irks him and the interests which he represents is that he can't currently charge providers of pornography large license fees for the rights to broadcast it or ensure that all the profits are channelled to Rupert Murdoch and his other friends in big media.

Mandatory Porn filters are not designed primarily to reduce access to pornography- like every other form of censorship which has existed in the UK they are designed to block the flow of free ideas, limit citizen access to broadcast media and to prevent certain types of knowledge and information being circulated.
Most of the things that all of you enjoy about accessing the Internet now are under threat and that is everything from cheap or free music downloads, to cheap Internet shopping to free and unhampered access knowledge about pollution, food safety, science , medicine and anything you care to mention. All of it will be gone.
I realised this as soon as the porn filter initiative was first announced. However, I was reticent to write a post on it as people would think I was a conspiracy theorist. I was going to rely on past experience of censorship in the UK to build my argument. Fortunately, I don't have to. Information leaked to media in the last few days about the conversations between the Government and Internet providers prove conclusively that all the concerns I have are legitimate.  The overall intention of these proposals is to develop centralised control over what people are all allowed to see on the Internet and ultimately who can publish on the net and what they can make public.

The current state of the Internet is very inconvenient for many large vested interests.
It is inconvenient for large media companies. In the days when you could only access an audience by tooling up record production and getting expensive promotion it was very difficult for musicians to get their music heard  and most of the profits went to the record companies. Now bands can promote their music direct to their audience and there is no need  for record companies or that sort of middleman - performers can connect directly with their audience.
A free internet is inconvenient for academic publishers. If you can publish research on the Internet for free why waste money funnelling profits into academic publishers who will only limit the potential audience to your research. Book publishers, distributors, media critics and a whole range of hangers on have all become redundant...... At least for the moment.
A free internet is inconvenient to people who want to charge British customers £20 for a CD or DVD that is available for $5.00 in the USA or a range of other items that are cheaper overseas. Many people on the left believe that big business wants to liberalise markets. They don't. Free markets are the enemy of business which wants to develop a monopoly or dominate a market. Conservatives are not libertarians- they represent vested interests - not the interests of the majority. Government regulations whether they be censorship, licensing rules or other forms of regulation do not hinder big business. Rather they support it by making it difficult for new providers to enter the market or access customers.
A free Internet is also inconvenient to Governments who want to prevent their citizens from knowing about inconvenient facts such as institutional racism in the Police, dangers of pesticides, the effects of global arms trade, the spurious justification for the Iraq war and other conflicts, mobile phone footage of Police brutality and all sorts of other things which they don't want people to know about.
If you Don't believe me then  google Spycatcher - this was a book which was freely available in the U.S.A yet banned in Britain and that was less that three decades ago.  Read about the biased media coverage of the miners strike or the fact that a passing reference to the war in Northern  Ireland was censored out of a Star Trek to give two examples of how mainstream media of the UK suppressed the exchange of ideas. Read about how the Obscene Publications Act was used in the 1970s against people who published books on how to grow marajuana or against people who ran gay bookshops. Censorship is ALWAYS abused by Governments for political purposes including the U.K.
Another case in point is the Video Recordings Act. This was brought in to the U.K. On the basis of a similar moral panic to one surrounding Internet porn. In the early 1980s there were ridiculous assertions about how the nations children were watching so called 'video nasties' were published in tabloids, backed up by very methodologically unsound research. As a result the Video Recordings Act was brought in which makes it compulsory to have footage watched and rated before it can be released on a DVD. This may not seem to be an unduly unreasonable measure until you consider the implications. Video certification is very expensive and the cost is borne by the producer of the DVD. If you are a small company wanting to release a very specialist silent or foreign film in the UK. Then you may find the costs of certification prohibitive - I think it was something like £10 a minute 15 years ago. If you wanted to film you amateur dramatics society performing Macbeth and sell the DVDs in HMV you would have to stump up something like £1000 for certification before you even start. If you don't then selling the video is illegal. Of course nowadays people will just upload the video to Youtube. However, the ultimate end point of Cameron's aims will make sites like Youtube off limits in the UK. He says he wants the same restrictions on web material as exist in what sells in the shops. This is only possible if content is scrutinised before it is uploaded and that will cost money and restrict people's access to the web as consumers and publishers.

It is important to look also at how an Internet filter will work. A computer programme is not bright enough to know whether something is intended to titilate. If it is programmed to block nudity it will block anything that looks like nudity to it- from swimsuit shots in a fashion catalogue to paintings of nudes by old masters. If it is asked to filter based on words or names them it will also filter out educational material, discussions and totally innocuous material that sounds like it might be salacious. For example an American College with name beaver in the title had to change its name because it was being blocked by porn filters. Not sure what steps the World Wildlife Fund or the Beaver Protection society can take (if there is one) - they may have to rename the species like they did with German Shepherds during the war.

Similarly, I worked in an organisation which had porn filters and I was unable to access information  about adult social care because the sites had the word adult in the title. Anyone in education around medicine or social care will have to go through the embarrassing process of asking their Internet provider to remove their porn filter if they want to be able to access material for their job at home.

If a porn filter is to work in terms of restricting sexually explicit material it will inevitably restrict a lot of completely non-sexual material also.

Okay so lets look at other reasons why Cameron's filtering proposal is already suspect. According to information on various news websites this week the Open Rights Group  has been told that the Government has been in discussions with ISPs about the filters being used to filter out all sorts of material including 'violent material', 'extremist and terrorist related content', anorexia and eating disorders' and other issues including smoking.,b=facebook
 Again the only way a filter can deal with this sort of material is to restrict everything that contains certain keywords. Thus a terrorism filter will restrict websites containing intellectual debate about the topic and also websites that are critical of Government policy about how to deal with terrorism and its causes. This of course will nicely fit in with the Conservative agenda of restricting free speech and preventing anti- war rhetoric.

Also worrying is that filters could restrict ' esoteric topics' and discussion forums. Thus, opinions outside the mainstream or which support rights of marginalised people or communities will be potentially suppressed. The end result will be an Internet in which only sites which respond to certain filter friendly criteria will be guaranteed access to a reasonable audience.  This will have the additional benefit from Cameron's point of view of re concentrating media ownership amongst the old media companies who can afford to have their material censored and packaged. You would not be reading this blog if I had to pay to have someone read it or have a programme screen it to make sure it didn't upset filters.
There is clear evidence for this in the fact that Cameron has laser the ISP filters to look at copyright protection. See link below. It is likely that there has been lobbying by media firms.  A filter is not going to know whether something breaches copyright. A copyright filtering system will only work if people have to register or flag material as copyright protected in the first place. Thus there will have to be some system whereby you get you home made video of your cats chasing toy mice copyrighted before you can load it up on youtube. And you will probably have to have someone vet it (no pun intended) and rate it for suitability. All this will of course cost money which you will to pay to whoever has been contracted to this vetting. Most  people will not bother and will go back to being passive consumers of media. Citizen journalism will be dead. The winners will be people like Rupert Murdoch who will be able to charge people to access their platforms and ensure that only certain companies and people with lots of money get access to media. If you are a band starting out you will find that your opportunities to connect with your audience without using middlemen and companies become limited. This fits in with the views of Conservatives and people on the intellectual left who think that the public are incapable of coming to their own conclusions about what has artistic merit.
Many people thought that Murdoch was foolish to initiate pay walls for his newspapers online because people would not pay for online content. However, Murdoch is a smart individual and he realised that days of an unregulated and free Internet were probably numbered and indeed the filtering proposals could well be a result of his lobbying.
The next stage in this process will be a Balkanised Internet- different countries will only have access to material approved for their country. They will not have free access to news and opinions from other countries. They will not be able to shop in an international free market for goods because as I have already said Conservatives are actually against free markets and want to restrict how people trade to benefit vested interests. This is part of the rationale behind Internet regulation.
The default use of filters is an almighty step change in how the Internet operates in this country and it will be the beginning of a slippery slope towards the compulsory regulation of Internet sites and a requirement for approval of content before it goes up.
The real problem in this country and the reason that we will sleep walk into censorship is that there is no real lobby within the U.K. that is committed to protecting free speech or preserving the anarchistic and creative environment that is the Internet. The Left wing in Britain is just as in favour of a top down controlled society as the Right is and there is no strong libertarian sentiment or grassroots support for free speech rights. Tony Blair, not satisfied with large scale slaughter in Iraq on humanitarian grounds, wanted the United Nations to endorse a policy of pre-emptive intervention in the affairs of ‘failed states’. Commentators such as the Guardian's Deborah Orr take delight in the censorship of things they don't like. They forget that free speech is something that can't exist in half measure. Of course, people need to be accountable for the effects of things which they write and rights also confer responsibilities, and abuse of these rights should and does attract severe penalties. But this is not the same thing as censorship. Also it will not be Deborah Orr or Zoe Williams who will be doing the censoring (chilling enough as that prospect would be). It will be farmed out to big business who will be asked to follow a Conservative agenda.

Deborah Orr will quickly find that she cannot do her job without her filter being turned off. As a journalist she will doubtless feel that she has legitimate reasons for requesting it to be turned off. However, ordinary citizens will worry about the stigma of being identified as potential pervert of they object to the filter or ask it to be turned off. So they will accept it, and then they will accept compulsory filters and eventually they will forget there was a time when they could read what they wanted or say what they wanted without someone looking over their shoulder.

The Internet is a tremendous force for freedom and sharing across communities across the world and it offers huge opportunities for artists and academics to work outside the powers of bug media. If you accept these filters being imposed you will be a huge step closer to losing most of the things that you value about the Internet today. The company developing the filters is a Chinese company with strong links to the Chinese Government and its practices of censorship of free speech.

Do you trust David Cameron and Chinese business with you intellectual freedom. IF NOT YOU MUST ACT NOW AS YOU WILL NOT GET  ANOTHER CHANCE. The filters will quickly become compulsory.

1. Sign the petition against default porn filters NOW.

2. Contact your MP and tell them that you are against the proposals because of the dangers they represent to free speech, free access to media and publishing and free trade.

3. Tell anyone who tells you that watching legal porn is bad and needs to be limited by the Government that is a private matter for individuals and households and is none of their business or the state's. Say this even of you have absolutely no interest in adult material or even dislike it. There is bound to be something else which you do like that they disapprove of whether that be smoking, drinking, fast cars, gangsta rap, non-energy saving light bulbs, flying abroad, sun bathing without using sun block or flower arranging. After the censors and statists have dealt with the perverts they will be trying to tell you how they think you should live your life too.

4. Read Wired magazine online and other sources of tech news to find out about how can subvert Government regulation and surveillance. Get involved with the online community around anti-censorship and pro-freedom initiatives.

5. Tell your Internet provider that you don't want the filters and you will consider changing providers to a small provider if they implement it.

6. Save this article in a file and read it in 5 years. If Cameron's proposals to through then you can evaluate how accurate my predictions about the casing down of the Internet were. I know I am right about what will happen if Cameron gets his way. I just hope it doesn't happen.

7. If you like this article share it on Facebook and Twitter and leave a comment. If you don't like it or disagree with points please leave a comment also.