British Prime Minister David Cameron has taken it upon himself to protect his country’s children and other like-minded individuals, embarking on a holy crusade that includes a filter to eliminate pornography from the screens of British internet users unless they specifically choose to have access to it , and to force search engines to block results relating to child pornography, (or legislate unless they “self-regulate”), and declare illegal the possession of so called “violent pornography”.
Once again, a leader unable to understand the nature of the web is trying to hiding things they don’t like by absurdly trying to sweep them under the carpet. Instead of simply eliminating illegal material and attacking the root of the problem with the legal weapons that already exist, we are going to introduce new laws and states of emergency… because “the internet is different.”
Why are these kinds of solutions such a bad idea? To begin with, because they don’t work. Up until now, British ISPs offered their customers the possibility that their content was subject to a series of filters if they so wished. Faced with the scant enthusiasm this has raised, Cameron’s idea is that from now on, these filters will be active by default, and it will be up to the customer to ask for them to be removed, paving the way for some kind of “pervert list” that will likely have the opposite effect.
In the second place, because of a more serious problem: the impossibility, in practical terms, of maintaining a black list of sites. Internet is by its nature liquid, things flow from one place to another with absolute ease, and when there is an economic reason for providing certain types of content, these contents move, change their name, or transmute in such a way that any kind of supervision is an impossible task.
And not just impossible, but worse: faced with such a wide array of content, the vigilantes have usually decided to aim high. For example, a blog on Tumblr (a site that has taken a much less aggressive approach to dealing with the problem ) or a video on YouTube contain inappropriate content, then Tumblr and YouTube will be completely blocked, and thus throwing the baby out with the bath water. In many cases, no doubt users will ask for filters to be removed not because they want to access content deemed “dangerous” but simply because they are finding that perfectly normal and legal content is being blocked. Experience in this regard shows that no blacklist of pages has ever worked, and they always end up blocking the wrong content by mistake.
As with all the previous examples of failure, there is an additional problem: who will watch the watcher? Who decides that content is being blocked “to protect morality and good habits” or for some other reason? Who is to stop a government from using such a tool to silence critics or to influence public opinion? Can we trust our governments to take on the role of our moral guardians? My reply is an unequivocal “no thank you.” I am grown up enough to be able to protect myself and my family on my own.
And another thing: what guarantees are there that any list of “depraved internet users” will not be made public, or that they could become a kind of “revenge list”? This is not just about the potential problem of a list that doesn’t work or blocking something that we didn’t want blocked, but about the possibility that a government could use it to raise suspicion, shame opponents or to ruin the lives of many people who are guilty of no other crime than wanting to access perfectly legitimate content that has been blocked by mistake, or “for other reasons.”
Finally, there is a simple technical problem with all this: for the moment, every attempt to block something on the internet has only made it more popular. Every time that access to The Pirate Bay has been been blocked, we have seen an increase in the use of private virtual networks, proxies, and other similar systems.
Do we want to create a generation attracted to anything that has been banned, and that instead of hiding magazines under the mattress are instead spending time swapping proxy server addresses? Good luck with that one.
Illegal content should be pursued because it is illegal. We should track down those who generate this content, those who host it, those who distribute it, and those who consume it. With the full force of the law. If somebody is linked to child pornography, violence, etc., they should be found and the handed over the authorities. We already have sufficient laws to do that.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the depraved individuals who consume this type of content do not search for it using Google. They have other sources, sources that are nigh impossible to block. The only thing that we will achieve with this kind of approach is to force these activities further underground. The problem doesn’t go away, it is merely removed from view. Sticking our heads in the ground will not save us, as ostriches know only too well. Let’s stop trying to hide problems, potentially creating others that are worse, and instead focus on the problem with the seriousness it deserves.