Bye bye nanny: EU quashes David Cameron’s ISP smut filter regime

There was some good news out of the EU single market debate on telecommunications last week. As Politico reported:

Despite the best efforts of U.K. Conservatives in the Parliament, the EU-wide regulation will put an end to Internet service provider-level filters for adult content, which will mean new U.K. laws by the end of next year. Currently in the U.K., the major ISPs give users the option to block pornography or gratuitous violence. Consumers are prompted to choose whether to turn on the blocking filter when they first use their Internet connection. While an exception for parental blocking tools was debated, it was not included in the final text.

You will have seen these filters in action in the pop-up screens your ISP sticks in front of you from time to time urging you to state your preferences on “adult” content. It was all a rather typical Cameron-May plan to “keep children safe” from sexual content and violent imagery. Dear God won’t somebody think of the children? Et cetera et cetera.

In practice, the ISP “smut filters” not only blocked perfectly legitimate sites that are no harm to anyone, but also blocked hundreds of web sites belonging to charities and third sector organisations working on the coal face of those uncomfortable subjects.  Alcohol support charities were blocked for discussing underage drinking; rape support charities were blocked for discussing sexual assault; and a children’s nature park called “The Owl and the Pussycat Centre” was blocked because of the combination of children and a word in its name.

This must-read piece from the Big Issue investigated the filters in depth. In addition to finding that very few UK internet users actually took up the offer to either activate or not use the filter at all, we learned that the content filtering process is, in some cases, outsourced to American companies who lack any cultural or moral point of reference to understand UK content.

The filters, in fact, blocked so much legitimate content that Open Rights Group was compelled to create a web site called blocked.org.uk where site administrators can check to see which ISPs have blocked their web sites. Their data shows that one ISP’s strict filtering settings are blocking an astonishing 13% of the web to their users.

You can expect Cameron and May to fight this slapdown, no doubt imploring us to think of the children in public, and negotiating over the definition of “default” filtering in private.

For me, this whole saga has reminded me of my teenage years in America, in the dialup/walled garden years of the web, which were spent in a large open-air prison camp masquerading as a rural high school. There were two sets of biology textbooks: one showing diagrams of the naked human body and reproductive organs, and one without. Parents of a fundamentalist nature were allowed to ensure that their teenagers were given the latter biology textbook, lest their fragile minds be traumatised by the sight of a dick or – even worse – inspired to engage in permissive behavior. Parents were also allowed to take their teenagers out of biology classes altogether when human reproduction was on the syllabus.

Unsurprisingly, the school had an astronomically high teenage pregnancy rate which, disturbingly, was always between adult males and girls under 16, never between teenagers themselves. Young women from the Hispanic migrant community were particular targets, with one girl being impregnated in our final year of elementary (primary) school, but institutionalised racism meant that these children were seen as culturally inclined to promiscuity rather than being victims of sexual assault. The high school also had at least two sexually predatory teachers. The male teacher successfully targeted boys, and the female teacher unsuccessfully targeted girls, including me. One of the little boys victimised by the male teacher has gone on, as an adult, to victimise children himself.

It was an early lesson for me on how communities which are uncomfortable about allowing young people to access information about their emerging sexuality are nervous for a reason. It was also a stark reminder that ignorance creates perpetrators as well as victims. Blocking “objectionable” adult content – and taking access to health, support, and assistance with it – grants insecure adults a sense of accomplishment but achieves precisely nothing else. It’s why Andy Pippen got it right in the Big Issue story about these content filters:

“If we really want to protect our children online we have to alter our offline behaviour. In school, all children get as compulsory sexual education is the biology of reproduction, nothing about consent, respect, sexuality or the influence of pornography. It is tired and lazy stuff. Parents ask me all the time, ‘How do you have a conversation with your child about p0rn?’ You don’t, you just have a relationship with your child so if they want to ask you those sorts of questions they feel they can.”

About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.