Policy

Britain Fumbles Its Attempt to Cleanse the Internet of Porn


File it under predictable: The British government’s attempt to force Internet service providers to install filters that block inappropriate content isn’t going so smoothly. Critics of the hastily planned attempt to have the nation’s Internet browsing become porn-free by default warned that much more than smut would be affected, and they seem to have been right. A government working group is now coming up with a white list of websites that have been inadvertently blocked by filters, according to a BBC report.

This effort began in earnest last summer, largely at the behest of Claire Perry, Prime Minister David Cameron’s special adviser on preventing the sexualization and commercialization of childhood. The government threatened to pass legislation requiring filters if Internet providers didn’t put them in place voluntarily; a similar arrangement was already in place for mobile networks. So starting over the summer, Internet providers began activating filters for new customers before expanding the policy more broadly. Over the course of this year, companies will contact existing customers to give them descriptions of various filters blocking pornography, self-harm websites, and other controversial content while allowing users to turn the filters off.

The experience of the last several months points to a contentious year ahead. Various websites, from groups working on issues of sexual violence to Torrent Freak, which offers news about copyright issues, have reported being blocked in the filters. One provider, BT (BT), faced criticism after its list of filters initially had a setting for blocking sexual education that included such subjects as “respect for partners” and homosexuality. There seems to be no universal way to set some line beyond which people shouldn’t go and no clear technical path to get there even if there were.

Another issue is the lack of a reliable way for the proprietor of a website to find out whether his or her site is even being blocked. Each service provider uses slightly different criteria and has different levels of blocking, and there are separate filters for mobile data networks and public Wi-Fi. One carrier, O2 (TEF), managed to set off a firestorm with a tool that allowed people to check if specific URLs had been blocked. Since the tool tested O2′s most restrictive child-safety setting, many websites came up as blocked, giving fodder to critics who had feared the worst about the filters. The company quickly took the tool down.

Perry has described the idea of overly zealous filters as “fanciful,” and the head of the panel set up to look at the issue told the BBC that the level of accidental blocking was low. Peter Bradwell of the Open Rights Group, which opposed the filters, is working with the government’s panel on overblocking. He’s pessimistic about the panel’s chances of being effective, because there seems to be little recognition that websites need a systemic way to check the filters and appeal if they are getting caught up in them. “It would be a shame if the existence of the group reflected well on the government, because what they’re trying to do is clean up the mess it created,” he says.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

Hollywood Goes YouTube
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  • BT
    (BT Group PLC)
    • $64.65 USD
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