Of MPs and Technology

Why an Internet Watershed is not Actually Dumb

A lot of my friends come down heavily on the anti-censorship side of most debates, and if I’m honest so do I. So it’s not surprising that they are deeply troubled by government proposals to limit access to pornography.

The debate is not helped by government’s habit of using vague and confusing language that often conflates legal and illegal content and their desire to ban some things outright but merely limit accidental (read: child) access to the rest. Equally though the debate is not well served by opposition that amounts to little more than “no no no, internet filtering is always ineffective and/or overreaching you stupid, stupid technophobe”.

Rhoda Grant MSP thinks you can stick a “watershed” on the internet, so the smut can be avoided. This isn’t a spoof. http://t.co/zUo7J2arab
— Chris Nicholson (@EraseThisTweet) July 24, 2013

Just because someone is technically unsophisticated in your field, does not mean that they are stupid. MPs lack the domain knowledge to be able to come up with good specific suggestions on how to achieve their goals but that doesn’t invalidate their core intuition that there is a good solution that’s worth pursuing.

Let’s think about this Watershed idea for a second shall we? The UK TV Watershed is a very simple solution to a potentially complicated problem. Kids love TV, some TV is unsuitable for children, so we’ll just schedule all the unsuitable stuff after 9pm and parents that care can send their kids to bed or otherwise restrict access to TV after 9pm. That’s genius. It doesn’t require any technical knowledge to take advantage of it. I’d bet big money that in households where parents are actually concerned about such things, the vast majority are controlling access to content via the Watershed rather than by setting up the staggeringly tedious parental controls on their satellite/cable box. And what’s the downside for adults? I have to stay up a little later to watch “mature” material? Boo Hoo.

Contrast that with the situation on the internet. I want my kids on there, but I can’t look over their shoulder the whole time. When my eldest was born, hating filters as I do, I assumed my approach would be the then standard “keep the computer in a family room”. Well thank you iPad, but that’s just not happening is it? I am reasonably tech-savvy, but I haven’t got around to installing a filter at home. It’s time consuming to install, and my assumption is that it will be intrusive and annoying to the adults in the house.

When a politician is saying that they want a “Watershed” for the internet, what (I hope) they are actually saying is that they want a low-friction way for parents to get piece of mind that their kids aren’t stumbling onto stuff they shouldn’t while not limiting adults access to this stuff. That’s a completely laudable goal. Don’t mock someone for wanting that, think about ways to make it happen.

And it’s not like an Internet Watershed need even be that hard. Lots of people get their Wireless Router from their ISP. Lots of Wireless Routers broadcast two networks — the real one and the restricted guest one. Have your ISP-supplied router ship in such a way that the guest network identifies traffic passing through to be filtered. Then your parental decision is as simple as which WiFi network you allow your child’s devices on.

Don’t like that idea? How about a more literal Watershed analogue? Instead of an in/out option for a global filter on my connection, have the initial sign up ask you the hours during which you would like the filter enabled. You could have it on during the hours of 5AM to 9PM, but off otherwise. Or just on. Or just off.

I can think of any number of refinements to these proposals, but my basic point is that its not unfeasible and its not unreasonable to want it. In many ways an Internet Watershed is far more reasonable a request than the actual opt in / opt out to filtering proposal on the table now. Everyone’s connection is both filtered and unfiltered. There’s no list of the opt in perverts, Big Brother is not watching me any more than he already is.

But yes, lets mock the stupid MP.

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