Safe in their hands?

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Earlier this week, David Cameron announced a number of measures aimed at reducing exposure to internet pornography and images of child abuse.  By the end of 2014, internet service providers will be required to provide family-friendly filters for all households in England and Wales. Internet users who desire access to pornography will have to opt in.

Other measures announced include forcing search engines to provide no results for certain terms which are used by those seeking child pornography, and making it a criminal offence to possess pornography which depicts simulated rape.

It’s an emotive issue, and you don’t have to be a letch or a pedophile to hear the alarm bells ringing.

Just as a starter, there are questions as to what qualifies as “pornography,” especially as the day after making his announcement, Cameron said he would not be banning the Sun from publishing topless images on Page 3, on the grounds that it is for the consumer to choose whether or not to buy or look. There are questions as to the effectiveness of filters (perhaps “ineffectiveness” is the better term), and questions as to whether pedophiles need to use search engines to find material which is in any case illegal and which is in any case already blocked by the major search engines.

Indeed, in all the interviews following the announcement, government spokesmen seemed to be far more intent on blocking access to images of sexual abuse of children than they were on hunting down those who perpetrate these acts of abuse, or in rescuing the child victims.

Filters do not work.  Most tend either to block out too much, innocent sites as well as those which offend, or they do not block out enough.  Just think of email filters! How many times do these block innocent material, mail of great importance to us, how many times do they let through material which you don’t want?  Those who want to evade the filters will find ways, be they publishers of banned material or those seeking it.

The Daily Mail article Google and Yahoo have a ‘moral duty’ to act on porn: Cameron warns search engines they have until October to curb web filth hailed the announcement as a victory for the newspaper.  Me, I find many of the picture-and-caption links on the right-hand side of every MailOnline web page quite obscene – but I would not want to ban them, prevent others from enjoying them or from following up the stories. I exercise my rights as consumer, I don’t have to look at them, I don’t have to click on them, and I don’t.

I am not interested in obtaining pornography, legal or illegal.  I am interested in my right to decide for myself, my freedom of information.  I do not like living in a “filter bubble,” having decisions made for me. It does not make my life easier, it makes it harder.

I am disturbed on at least two fronts.  What might happen to those who choose not to have their web use filtered?  Will they find themselves on a register of subversives, of possible sex offenders?  Surely it is NOT a case of “If you’re not in favour of a porn filter, then you must be a porn-loving pervert…” – but there’s the danger, that is one of the arguments being touted by those who wish to exercise control and limit the information we receive.

And the others?  What might happen to those who sign up for the family-friendly filter? Will they find the definitions of what is pornographic extended, possibly to include gay and lesbian material? Might political or religious extremes be labelled pornographic? What of other disturbing images, violence, drug use and abuse, war reportage?  And are we talking images only, or will sound and text be filtered too? Will the boundaries creep, will the definitions change?

Who is in control? Who makes the decisions? Government? Big business, pulling strings openly, pulling strings behind closed doors?

Is this paranoiac? Surely we can trust government, authority, the establishment?  Think Haliburton, yesterday admitting they had destroyed evidence of their involvement in the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.  Think of the police, falsifying testimony in connection with the Hillsborough disaster, with Stephen Lawrence, with any number of incidents and investigations. Think secret courts. Think PRISM, of the NSA and GCHQ “not wittingly” eavesdropping and recording and following up on email and internet use and cell phone conversations of American and British nationals (and the rest of the world) – and their denials, and then the “justifications”.  Think data-miners, and the uses they make of the information we (wittingly and unwittingly) give them, all in our own interests of course, to make our lives easier, happier, making decisions on our behalf.

Of course our interests are safe in “their” hands. NOT.

This is not to deny that there may be problems. But it could be (1) that the problems identified by David Cameron may in fact be symptoms, not the problems themselves, and (2) problems or symptoms, the measures announced will be problematic to enforce and will in any case not work.

[For a more eloquent set of objections to Cameron’s plans, see Phil Bradley’s statement Why blocking pornography is an offense against all of us.]

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