The spectre of Internet censorship has reared its head again recently, with reports that the government is planning to hold talks with ISPs over the creation of an “opt in” system for allowing customers to access pornographic material on the web rather than requiring them to take steps to avoid it if they don’t want their children to see it. The claim is that this will protect children in households where the parents either don’t care about them seeing porn or do care but don’t have the skill to take effective measures themselves to prevent it. It’s been in a few newspapers, but this report in the Daily Mail is pretty typical.
Before discussing whether or not this is a good idea, I want to make it clear that I entirely agree that there is a real problem here. There is a very large body of research which supports the claim that early exposure to inappropriate sexual material can be very damaging to children. The ready availability of porn on the Internet is a major factor in this. I’m certainly no defender of the porn industry, which – even if you think there’s nothing wrong with porn itself – is unarguably one of the most corrupt and amoral sectors of business around today. And there’s no significant civil liberties angle here; while it’s generally true that adults should have the freedom to do things which are harmful to themselves, the same does not apply to those – such as children – who are incapable of making an informed decision on the matter. As the parent of two pre-school children myself, the need to protect them from seeing inappropriate material on the Internet is something that concerns me greatly. And I wouldn’t have wanted them watching the XXX-factor edition of Simon’s Karaoke Show, either.
So the argument isn’t over whether there is a problem. The fact that there is a problem is accepted by all of the major players in the debate – the campaigners, the ISPs, and the government. The argument is about how best to tackle it.
So, is a compulsory opt-in system for viewing porn the solution? I think not. The rest of this article will be about why I think it isn’t. But, just in case anyone thinks that my opposition to these proposals makes me somehow “pro-porn”, or that I’m not “thinking of the children”, I’ll refer you back to the second paragraph and ask you to re-read it. If, after that, you still think that my opposition to these plans amounts to my going soft on the porn industry or being heedless of the harm it causes, then, frankly, you’re probably too stupid to understand my arguments anyway. If that’s you, then stop reading now as all you’ll do is waste your time.
Having got that minor rant out of my system (and if you’re still with me, thanks for approaching the matter rationally even if you ultimately disagree with my conclusions), why don’t I think this is the way forward? My main objection is simply one of practicality – I don’t think that the technical proposals will be anywhere near as effective as their supporters think, and even if they are they won’t do all that much to protect children.
Starting with the technical flaws in the proposals, it seems pretty clear that many of them are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet. That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t work, of course – you don’t need to understand the aerodynamics of powered flight to be able to make a valid case for regulating the airline industry – but it does mean that they’re likely to leave people with a false impression of what’s actually possible. For example, most of the media reports of the proposals use wording similar to this, from the Mail article linked to earlier:
The plan is to allow parents to ‘opt out’ of the sites and they will then be blocked at the source, rather than using conventional parental controls.
The problem with that is that the ISPs are not the source of pornography, and have no ability to block it at source. The same mistake is made by Claire Perry MP, one of the leading lights of the campaign, when she compares it to regulating TV channels:
We already successfully regulate British TV channels, cinema screens, High Street hoardings and newsagent shelves to stop children seeing inappropriate images
This is the fallacy of the inappropriate analogy. Just because we can, and do, do something in one situation doesn’t mean it will necessarily work in another. In this case, the differences between the Internet and broadcast or print media are not only significant but are a key to why we have the problem in the first place.
The reality is that ISPs have virtually no control whatsoever over the sources of pornography on the Internet. In many cases, the source isn’t even in the same country as the ISPs. So, far from doing something different to conventional parental controls, any ISP-level blocking is doing exactly the same thing: blocking it in transmission (or preventing its reception).
That’s not necessarily a huge problem, of course. There’s no reason why ISPs shouldn’t offer a filtered Internet feed for customers who want it, rather than requiring them to do their own filtering. Let’s just not pretend that it’s qualitatively different from installing Net Nanny or similar on your own PC.
The downside of a centralised version, though, is that it will be less effective. And, again, the reason why it will be less effective is due to factors that don’t seem to have been appreciated by the campaigners. A comparison is often drawn with the Cleanfeed and WebMinder systems used by ISPs to filter child pornography identified by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). These work reasonably well, most of the time, but the reason they do so is because of three specific factors which do not apply to pornography in general:
- Child porn is illegal almost everywhere in the world
- There isn’t all that much of it on the web
- Not many people want to view it
Taken together, those three factors make it relatively easy to combat. Its illegal nature makes it a risky business to publish, which means that there isn’t very much at all that’s readily accessible, and that in turn means that a relatively small and lightly-funded organisation can keep track of what little there is without too much difficulty. And, since its illegal to view in the UK, no-one is going to be complaining to their ISP that they can’t get it.
By contrast, porn in general isn’t illegal, and there is a humongous amount of it on the web. That’s part of the problem, of course, and the reason why we’re having this debate, but it’s also part of the reason why an IWF-style watchlist simply won’t work. Keeping track of every pornographic website in the world requires resources way beyond those currently available to the IWF. That’s why the likes of Net Nanny, for example, aren’t free – the price you pay for them goes towards creating the filter list. Even so, they aren’t 100% reliable – websites change by the minute, and any list-based system will always lag behind. And that’s the other problem with a list-based system. Even the relatively small IWF list gets it wrong sometimes and ends up blocking sites that it shouldn’t – as evidenced by the time it blocked Wikipedia, until eventually reversing that decision. The bigger the list, the greater the probability of errors. With a system that I run on my own PC, I can override it if I decide it’s made a mistake, but if the blocking is controlled by my ISP then that’s much harder. In any case, who decides which sites should be on it? It may be fairly easy to conclude that the likes of PornTube (not linked, I’m sure you can guess the URL if you really want to) should be blocked, but what about the aforementioned Wikipedia? There’s porn on Wikipedia, if you know where to look – or even if you don’t, since it’s all linked in as a mesh and it’s quite easy to stumble across some unsavoury images on Wikipedia without meaning to if you’re researching some otherwise quite innocuous subjects.
The other big difference, though, is that an awful lot of people do actually want to view legal porn. And a lot of them are parents. If I wanted to browse porn on the Internet myself, but don’t want my daughters to see it, then I can install software on my PC which will allow me to do so while at the same time minimising the probability that they’ll see it accidentally. If I’m relying on my ISP for the filtering, though, then it’s all or none – if I can see it, then so can anyone else on my home network, as my ISP can’t tell the difference between my use of the computer and anyone else’s. It’s all very well to say that the default should be no porn, with customers having to opt in to see it, but what if the customers who do opt in are parents? Is the ISP supposed to refuse to allow them to opt in? Or do we trust the parents not to, even if they fancy viewing a bit of horizontal action on their laptop?
There’s another aspect to this, too. The campaigners talk in terms of “no porn” or “with porn” options, but in reality it’s not that simple. What we’ll actually have is a choice between filtered and unfiltered web access; the filtered access will minimise (but not eliminate) the availability of porn but it will also filter out some sites that many people – even those who don’t want porn – will want access to. It will also, due to the way it functions at a technical level, cause problems for some people who work from home and need to access company intranets, for example. So a lot of people (who would include myself) who seemingly “opt in” to porn are actually opting out of having their Internet access filtered by their ISP, with porn having nothing to do with it. Many of these people, too, will be parents.
So, when it comes down to it, what will mandatory default filtering actually achieve? It won’t do anything to protect the children of those who want or need unfiltered access for reasons which have nothing to do with porn. It won’t protect the children of those who actually want to be able to get porn at home, and don’t have the self-discipline to refrain from opting in just because there are children in the household. It will reduce (but not eliminate) the amount of porn available to the children of those who don’t opt out, but at the cost of increasing their monthly bills – because someone is going to have to pay for maintaining the pornsite list, and I very much doubt it’s going to be the government. In fact, if it was proposed that it be the government, that would be an even stronger reason to oppose it – there are better things to spend taxpayers’ money on than compiling a directory of pornographic websites (and just imagine what would happen if that list ended up on Wikileaks). But it will also generate a false sense of security among those who come to rely on it, especially if it doesn’t occur to them that their children might be getting access to porn elsewhere.
Ultimately, therefore, I think these proposals fall into the category of “well meaning, but misguided”. The cost and complexity of implementing them will be disproportionate to any benefit they may provide. There is even some danger that they will make things worse, by discouraging parents from taking responsibility themselves for what their children see on the Internet.
So, what is the solution to the problem of porn on the Internet being accessed too easily by children? I don’t think there is a simple, single answer, and I think that the biggest mistake being made by many of the campaigners is that they think there is. But there are some things we can do, and these are some of them.
Firstly, I think it’s entirely appropriate for ISPs to offer an opt-in filtering system for customers who want it. As I’ve said, I don’t think it will be as effective as a user-installed system, but it will provide some benefit to those who choose to use it. But a secondary benefit of such systems – which will need to be widely publicised by the ISPs if they’re to be of any value – will be that it will draw people’s attention to the need to take some steps themselves to protect their children. Because the second, but in my opinion the most important, issue is the lack of user awareness of the issue. I’m sure that most parents would, if they were aware of the issue and had the ability, take some precautions to prevent their children accessing inappropriate material. A big problem, though, is that too few of them are aware. A campaign by the ISPs to improve take-up of their opt-in centralised filtering systems, together with a wider publicity campaign by the government and issue groups to raise awareness of the need to protect children, could make a big difference. In fact, if any of the people and organisations currently campaigning for mandatory default filtering were to change their focus to campaign for raised awareness of the problem and encourage parents to take greater responsibility, then I’d happily support them.
Also, as far as action by the Internet companies is concerned, I think that the ISPs are the wrong target. If the problem is children accidentally encountering porn on the Internet (as opposed to children who deliberately seek it out, which is an entirely different issue), then it’s important to look at how that happens. And one of the major causes of accidental porn exposure is the inclusion of links to porn sites in otherwise innocuous search results. If Google, Bing, Yahoo et al were to insist that “safe search” can only be turned off if you’re logged in to an account which requires you to state your age, then that alone would significantly reduce the amount of porn which is readily accessible by children. That’s a simple change which could easily be made, and one which the search engines would probably agree to if pressed (particularly if the USA and the EU were to make a similar request).
Finally, though, there really is no substitute for parental responsibility. I won’t be signing up for ISP-level filtering, not because I want my children to see porn but because I don’t trust anyone else to protect them from it. I want every parent on the Internet to share my attitude. And I will oppose any campaign which seeks to reduce it. Ultimately, we all need to think of the children.