Yes, I'm talking about David Cameron's latest step away from anything remotely resembling liberal free-market small-state politics, the "default-on" policy. You immediately know that this is nasty, because it has a snappy appealing title. A sweet sugary unobjectionable layer of spin to cover the illiberal and unpalatable inside.
Now, this is being presented as so, so reasonable because we all know porn is nasty, that children should be kept away from it, that it incites some men to carry out appalling crimes, and that anything that stops child porn being disseminated must be a good thing, right? Sorry, no. Those are the reasons that I've heard being thrown around today in support of this move, and I'll start by squashing them. But first, I'll just clarify a few points before anyone decides to take the wrong impression of me.
Nothing that I say here is in any way, shape or form in defence of or condoning violent pornography, non-consensual sex or film/images of it, or child pornography.
I have a young daughter, and the thought of any of these makes me feel physically ill. Quite frankly, anyone who tried that with anyone that I know would find themselves being taken for a ride, cuffed to a towrope behind one of my cars. Yes, I'd go to jail for that. No, I wouldn't care.
So, with that out of the way, let's turn to the justifications for this policy:
Porn is nasty
Yes, it is. But it is legal (in many variants, at least). There are many things that I consider to be nasty but which are legal. Should we make everyone who wants to do anything I don't approve of apply to me and opt-in before they are allowed to?
More pertinently, if the bar is not set at what Parliament says is legal, where is it to be set - and who sets it?
Children should be kept away from it
Yes, they should. In fact, that is the law as it stands. 18-rated material is not to be shown to minors.
So this is not a change to the law, merely a change to the process. Therefore, it is valid for us to look at the process and see whether this will help - which it won't. What it will do is make parents feel that the State and the ISPs are doing their job for them, and that they can therefore opt out because the filter is "default on". Unless the husband/boyfriend/older son has quietly defaulted off, of course. And provided that the filter is perfect and catches every nasty thing without making any mistakes.
And that brings me to one of the really serious problems - filters are just awful. We fitted a filter to our kid's PCs, one of the leading ones in fact. They both hated it. It blocked a wide variety of perfectly acceptable websites - I recall the moment when we sent our daughter to a clothes website, to choose some holiday outfits. It blocked that, because of the large amount of lingerie that could be viewed there. We were forever approving exceptions, which is a hassle when the security is set at a level intended to defeat a determined 17-year-old lad. Whenever that defeated us, we had to listen to the "I can't do my homework because of the filter" rants. How easy is it going to be to request an exception when David Cameron's appointee holds the codes, instead of the householder?
And yes, sites that their schools sent them to in order to do their homework triggered the block. That is how sensitive porn filters are.
That it incites some men to carry out appalling crimes
Not proven. Sociologists have tried to prove this on numerous occasions and failed.
In any case, the men concerned will just be able to ring their ISP and ask for the filter to be taken off. Then they will be able to look at disgusting pictures to their heart's content and - if there is a causal link flowing in that direction - they will be incited to go off and do horrific things. Just like before.
Personally, my view is that the arrow of causation is in the opposite direction, that men who are willing and able to carry out such crimes will (along with many other men) be attracted to porn. But that is just my view and I have no evidence to support it.
That anything that stops child porn being disseminated must be a good thing
I'd agree with this (wholeheartedly), but disagree that this policy will achieve it.
First, as noted above, it is a filter that can be turned off at will. So those that want to bypass it, can, err, turn it off.
Second, I have (literally) no idea how these images (etc) are circulated. But I very much doubt that it is via a searchable database on the open Web. I suspect that other protocols are used, that the servers are locked down and only accessible to validated users as opposed to the Google spiders. So even on a "default-on" broadband connection, I reckon the access will be no harder than before.
If you disagree, think through this. To filter a site out, the authorities will need to know where it is and what it contains. Child porn (etc) is already very illegal. So if they know enough to filter it out, they should be shutting it down instead. Ergo, if we assume that the illegal sites are being shut down in line with the current law, the filter will only block legal sites and will leave the illegal sites untouched.
So that deals with the positive reasons for the policy. What about the reasons why we shouldn't do this?
First, there is the collateral damage. I hinted at this above - my daughter being unable to choose an outfit for her holiday because the site also showed lingerie. I can assure you that any filter will either be a waste of time (letting all sorts through) or will make your online life a nightmare. If you don't believe me, if you think a filter can be written which works perfectly, then all I can say is go write it! I'll patent it for you, in return for a slice of the royalties. We will make a mint, because the perfect online filter is a prime example of a product that is in high demand but which does not exist. Larry Page and Sergey Brin will look like losers next to us.
It's not difficult to realise why. How do you plan to filter it? By hand? Impossible, too much volume, just YouTube gets uploads of something like 48 hours worth of video per minute. So to check YouTube alone, you would need several thousand people working 8 hour shifts doing nothing but watching YouTube. Multiply that by every site on the web, and you soon have most of the country sitting down all day checking for porn. Perversely, that would actually make sure that at least someone watched all of the worst stuff.
So you need automation. It can look at the content or the words, or a combination of both. If it looks for both, or for just the content, then people will publish text-only sites with links and instructions for accessing secure servers. If it looks at the words, then this page and (say) @_millymoo's blog (http://www.beneaththewig.com) will be blocked immediately. Neither are pornographic. Both are laden with juicy keywords.
So there is the first argument. You are going to have to opt-in for porn in order to read this blog. OK, I know the easy answer to that is to question why you would ever want to read this again, but bear with me on this for a while:
- This blogpost questions government policy.
- The government policy in question would hinder your ability to read this blogpost and its questioning of the government policy.
If that doesn't scare you, then you need to do some thinking.
You could start by thinking about who defines the content that is excluded, who has oversight over that, and who has the right to challenge it. Because once porn is out, why should children be exposed to unpalatable extremist views - such as terrorist sympathisers, for example? Or racists? Or smoking (we're thinking of the kids, remember)? Or global warming deniers...?
In fact, how would you propose to argue in support of people being able openly to promote illegal activity via the web?
Promoting illegal activity such as, say, the right to do something that is currently proscribed? Or, if I may re-word that, calling for the law to be changed.
So there is the second objection; just as there is no clear bright line that a filter can use to detect porn, there is no clear bright line saying where this should stop.
And, in case you were wondering, there is an easy way to argue in support of people being able openly to promote illegal activity, by any medium. It's here. Go read it.