Back in October of this year, David Cameron proposed a censorship scheme which would make it harder to access pornography in the UK. Under the plan, the UK’s biggest four ISPs — BT, Talk Talk, Virgin, and Sky — would automatically block access to pornographic sites for anyone with an existing broadband contract unless they opted out. Ostensibly, users would be given a choice, but it would be a choice that many users would be reluctant to make due to embarrassment or fear of recrimination.
The proposal paves the way for increased governmental regulation of the Internet in the UK. Despite the fact that Cameron suggested censorship would apply only to pornographic sites (and supposedly only to prevent the increasing sexualisation of children), the reality is that there is no reliable way to filter out only pornographic sites. The result would be over-inclusiveness rendering many acceptable sites blocked simply for containing related terms. The sites affected would be those that discuss topics such as sexuality, sexual health, and safe sex; these topics are essential to education, public safety, and public health.
Glenys Roberts, from the UK paper Daily Mail, heartily agreed with the proposal in an article entitled ‘We need protection from more than just porn on the internet.’ The paper stated that adults, not just children, need protection from ‘sudden unexpected exposure to internet porn’ because ‘there is nothing quite so upsetting as coming upon pornographic images you do not want to see’. In fact, the article went even further, suggesting that all vaguely ‘upsetting’ imagery should be excised from the Internet including ‘people in unnatural positions doing unimaginable things to each other,’ ‘beautiful girls in come-hither postures,’ ‘laboratory animals undergoing horrific experiments,’ ‘images posted by the anti-fur brigade or those against the production of foie gras or cruelty to dogs in China,’ and even ‘anything supernatural designed to terrify me out of my wits’.
On the contrary, I would suggest that for most people there are far more upsetting things than coming across the occasional porn site. In fact, even imagery that is intentionally upsetting serves an important speech function. Certain upsetting images draw our attention to human and animal abuses all over the world, helping to rally support for ending these abuses. And these supposedly ‘terrifying’ supernatural images and tales are simply part of all the weird and wonderful ways in which human beings choose to express themselves. I wonder if Glenys Roberts would also prefer to have all of the ‘upsetting’ imagery taken out of news reports? Would she prefer we never had the opportunity to see anything at all which remotely threatens the stultifying status quo?
The most dangerous part of Cameron’s proposal, of course, is that it makes censorship the default position. This makes it possible for many other sites to be covertly and automatically censored, without prompting the furor that overt censorship would cause in situations unrelated to the cause of child protection.
Cameron’s proposal is unlikely to be implemented as is. Recent reports indicate that the four biggest ISPs in the UK have refused to agree to the proposal. While they will give new users the option to block all pornography, all existing contracts will remain the same. This will also be an active choice rather than a default position, requiring new subscribers to opt into censorship. And only a few people will even have that option because only 5% of broadband customers ever change providers, meaning that very few people enter into new contracts.
It seems as though Cameron’s attempt to regulate UK Internet access has been thwarted. All of those who were worried about their children’s access to pornography will simply have to use their parental controls as they have always have done. Glenys Roberts and all those who are ‘upset’ by the strange things on the Internet will simply have to restrain themselves from searching for them. However, with leaks from December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications suggesting that many world leaders view freedom of expression on the Internet as a problem, and the US’s participation in the dubious and non-transparent ‘Trans-Pacific Partnerships’ negotiations, it seems that this freedom is in imminent danger.
With David Cameron having reportedly tried to stop rioters from communicating via social media during the London riots of 2011 (before his plan became known to the public and was compared to the actions of Egyptian PM Hosni Mubarak), it is clear that Cameron sees the freedom of the Internet, and social media in particular, as a threat. Although the UK sided with the US in their refusal of the new ITRs (International Telecommunication Regulations) proposed at the WCIT last week, this only indicates that the UK government understands that such a move would be extremely unpopular. This makes it abundantly clear that as long as the opposition remains strong, censorship can be fought and the freedom of the Internet defended.
Jean-Loup Richet, Special Herdict Contributor