2013-07-22

Co.Labs

Why Britain's New Porn Filter Is Doomed To Fail

Not least because it may not work at all.



David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, announced a number of initiatives against online pornography today, beginning with a nationwide filtering of pornographic content at the ISP level that consumers have to deliberately deactivate if they want to view adult content. It's all about protecting the public and stamping out child abuse.

Further, "extreme pornography" such as simulated rape is to be deemed illegal, and in collaboration with sites like Twitter—which will implement filters to prevent unacceptable pornography being shown on its services—there's going to be a push to prevent such images from being promoted online.

But the prime minister's move prompted some serious controversy online. Some are suggesting that the new regulations constitute censorship, and that there are already many protections in place to prevent abusive adult content on the web, including the "corroding" images that Cameron wishes to outlaw. The intimation is that Britain's new attack on porn is a gateway to censorship, and that the net it casts now could easily be expanded in years to come to cover other content deemed "unacceptable" to the state.

Also in the Internet's cross hairs is the system that the U.K.'s porn filters will use. It's said to be keyword based, with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre drawing up "abhorrent" words that will be blocked in an attempt to curb pedophiles.

But this exposes Cameron's system to a number of problems that begin with the very choice of words themselves. In the U.K. this is typified by the "Scunthorpe problem." Scunthorpe is a town of about 72,000 people in the east of the U.K., proudly drawing its name from the older "Escumetorp," Old Norse for "Skuma's homestead." But the second to fifth letters of the town's very name could pose a problem to very blunt-edged porn keyword filters. Similarly, if one includes American terminology, the small Devon town of Westward Ho! (one of the very few places to include a "!" in its name) may also be under threat.

These two linguistic examples are a little lighthearted—though the thousands of people living there may disagree—but there are worse problems. Tumblr's recent attempts at completely dead-stocking adult content are a perfect demonstration of this: As part of its tech-led crackdown, Tumblr also included bans on keywords like "#gay", which was seen by many as a barefaced snub to millions of homosexual people around the world. Adult content is also not necessarily pornography, and as author Nick Harkaway demonstrated via tweet, he couldn't even access the Prime Minister's announcement because porn blockers prevented him from seeing it. Educational sites that include adult content could also be affected.

Finally, Cameron's suggestions ignore the ingenuity of the Internet. It wouldn't be hard for a developer to build a service that filters out blacklisted words from any website and serve it to British citizens without being caught by the filters. It would also be easy for folks determined to dodge the filters to coin new terminology that's one step ahead of the censors—much in the same way Chinese citizens use colorful terminology to talk about banned political topics. The censorship list would likely expand to include those new terms, but that means the censors would be playing a game of catch-up and that the porn filters might start accidentally filtering out so much meaningful content that they become useless.

No one would contend that an effort to stamp out online images of child abuse is a bad thing. In fact, it's admirable. But the PM seems to be planning to use some very blunt tools to do the job, and that risks damaging his entire system.

[Image: Flickr user Vaughan Leiberum]






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2 Comments

  • Krr711

    If these laws can prevent a young girl from falling into the porn industry, even just one, then it is worth it. I would not want my daughter doing this. This is not about freedom and rights but more about being responsible and realizing that a society can enjoy its freedoms and take pleasure in the gifts God has given us but does not necessarily fall directly into a First Amendment issue. This industry has its share of casualties. Go to Youtube, then go to the videos that pay homage to those the men and women in porn that died early, way to early. At the end of each tribute pic there are a few words how they died. Just watch one of the videos, and ask you heart, "Are we as a society willing to pay this high cost of virtue and life for a little pleasure and so some can get wealthy?" Before we judge the U.K. lets not compare them to China and wait and see how it turns out for them.

  • Aubreythecat

     Most of those people on the Youtube commemoration videos died as a result of car crashes, stuff like that. And if they died of something like drug abuse, are you going to do something to stop any young girl (or any young person) from getting into any branch of the entertainment industry? Because exactly the same kind of thing goes on there.

    Besides, none of Cameron's ideas are intended to stop people from entering the sex industry: and his economic policies are ensuring that many more people - yes, young girls as well - are going into the sex industry than would be otherwise. And pretending to be protecting children at the same time as cutting the wages and benefits that their parents are allowed is pathetic, really.