In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Filters out of Kilter

Someone had better answer that phone, because I called it.

Internet service providers have received complaints of over-blocking by their filters. (Photo: BBC News)

Internet service providers have received complaints of over-blocking by their filters. (Photo: BBC)

The British government has asked the four major internet service providers (ISPs) to produce “family-friendly” filters. Prime Minister David Cameron said these filters were necessary to prevent children “stumbling across hardcore legal pornography”. BT launched its default-on filter, and it was discovered that some hardcore pornography sites were still available, whilst non-pornographic sites like the Doncaster Domestic Abuse Helpline were blocked. Hilariously, as Tim Worstall at Forbes spotted, the website of pro-filter campaigner Claire Perry MP was also blocked. On July 23rd 2013, I wrote:

Filters are never perfect, and may fail to capture violent pornography whilst prohibiting views of news articles discussing porn and other innocent material.

However, there is a much darker side to this charade. Martin Robbins at the New Statesmen highlighted that BT filters allowed parents to block ‘sex education’ websites, initially described as “sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.”  Even at the etymological level, this is highly worrying. Respect in relationships is not a matter of ‘sex education’. Restrictions on “gay and lesbian lifestyle” websites contains the dissonant echo of rabid sermons, complaining people are not merely living their lives but promoting a “lifestyle”.

Other commentators have conflated O2’s prior mobile filter and these new ISP filters. O2’s mobile filter has a ‘parental control’ level, intended for young children. This setting initially blocks almost all websites, allowing parents to select sites. That level automatically forbids O2’s own website, BBC’s CBeebies and this blog.

A Standard-Issue Moral Panic

The concern over internet pornography is a standard-issue moral panic. Firstly, it is claimed that pornography is corrosive and “threatens the safety of our children online”, according to Claire Perry MP. Academic papers, such as a study by Milton Diamond of the University of Hawaii focussing on the Czech Republic, found that after the legalisation of pornography, “the incidence of reported sex related crimes has not increased.” In particular:

Most obvious and most significant of our findings is that the number of reported cases of child sex abuse immediately dropped markedly after [sexually explicit materials] was legalized and become available.

Secondly, it is assumed that children can “stumble” across pornography. Internet search engines dedicate impressive amounts of people and resources to lowering pornographic rankings for ambiguous search terms, and removing illegal content. Even without ISP filters, parents can still use programs, like Net Nanny, to help them regulate their children’s internet habits.

Like all moral panics, tragic events are subsumed into its narrative. The NSPCC and other charities attacked internet companies after the murders of Tia Sharp and April Jones. Their complaints ignore the work already undertaken by these companies, especially in highlighting illegal content to the relevant authorities.

It is the entrusted role of parents to imbue values about sex and relationships in children and young adults. The state cannot supplant this role, nor should we desire it to.

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This entry was posted on December 30, 2013 by in National Politics and tagged , , .
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