Following a government decision last year, the UK’s major internet service providers (ISPs) have recently installed systems to censor ‘adult’ websites by default. For those who opposed the policy, the fallout from its implementation has been bitter-sweet. Policy-makers and concerned parents were warned by experts that porn filters would not work – that they would let unsavoury content through whilst blocking child-friendly stuff, and censoring educational, political and artistic content in the process. And they were right. Child protection agencies, women’s charities, LGBT groups and even the British Library’s website became inaccessible due to the filters. As did the personal web page of Claire Perry MP who, in a delicate twist of irony, was a key advocate for the filtering scheme.
While it’s unlikely to be reversed any time soon, it’s important to recognise what’s wrong with this policy and also situate it in the broader context of the development of the web. The first thing to recognise is that this has very little to do with pornography. Speaking as a feminist, I happen to think society might be better off if there were less pornography, especially the misogynistic, violent, and exploitative kind. The easy availability of pornography to children is worrying, as is the commercialisation of sex and the sexualisation of commerce. But as we have seen, government-mandated ‘porn filters’ for ISPs are ineffective at preventing access to such material, and do little to solve any of these much more fundamental societal issues.
One might object that even if this measure is ineffective, it is also harmless, since it simply shifts the burden of action from those who currently have to install their own filter to those who would opt-out of filtering under the new system. Perhaps there’s nothing illiberal about that, because there has to be a default setting one way or the other, and whatever the setting is, people will need to opt in or out. But this thinking fails to recognise that individuals installing porn-filters on their own devices is fundamentally different to filtering by ISPs.
It gives ISPs a new role in managing the content they provide. Until now (with a few minor exceptions), ISPs have just been the providers of traffic, shipping packets of information down ‘dumb’ pipes. They are utility providers, not stewards of content. According to the ‘end-to-end’ principle, a well-regarded rule of computer networking design that gave rise to the internet as we know it, decisions about what software to run, what files to consume and send, and who to communicate with, should take place at the ‘ends’ of the network, i.e. by individual users. Neglecting this principle sets a dangerous precedent, changing key protocols and putting power over our networked communications into different hands.
In some debates it has been implied that the detractors of porn-blocking are primarily motivated by a libertarian, pro-business, anti-state perspective. Writing in the Guardian last July, Deborah Orr dismissed opposition to the filters as ‘a roar of libertarian outrage‘. Unlike us ‘libertarians’, she is happy for the state to step in and regulate the market in cases like this. But to characterise the debate as consumer-protecting state regulation versus free-market ideology is, I think, wrong in this case. It neglects the fact that ISPs porn-blocking solutions are provided by private security firms who have only their commercial interests at stake.
For precisely this reason, no one outside those firms will be allowed to inspect their lists of blocked websites or scrutinise the algorithms used to detect undesirable content. Popular internet-filter providers see their blacklists as commercial assets to be protected from rivals. Likewise, ISP’s are private enterprises who we have to trust to act responsibly with their filtering mandates. Do we really want key pieces of our information infrastructure to be operating beyond the reach of democratic scrutiny, hidden from the very citizens they are supposed to serve? Far from a case of ‘benevolent’ state versus ‘free-market’, this is a case of government handing key functions to commercial actors who operate according to their own logic.
Couching the debate about porn-filtering in terms of child protection or feminism is a smoke-screen. These are important issues, but they are not the issues we should be thinking about here. As we’ve seen from the Snowden revelations, placing key functions of the web in the hands of a few private companies is a recipe for disaster. Putting all our data in a handful of services based out of Silicon valley has given one government easy access to the lot, through the front door via official requests, and the back doors that were secretly hacked open. The porn filter policy is just another example of this worrying trend, this time facilitated by a political points-seeking government.
There is a role for the state to play in our information infrastructure; from crafting intelligent regulation, to fostering open innovation and funding digital public goods. More than that, the state should facilitate democratic scrutiny of the data collection, network filtering and algorithms that increasingly govern our lives. Handing responsibility to unaccountable private police is not the answer.
Author: Reuben Binns
If you would like to read more articles from Reuben you can find his blog here additionally Reuben is on twitter @RDBinns.