Censorship and searching

As the UK begins the fight to force ISPs to implement filternets, I’m reminded of the four horsemen of the infocalypse. Currently, paedophiles and a 5th horseman, armchair child psychology, are the tools of choice.

The argument goes that children should be technologically prevented from stumbling across porn or other “harmful material” by forcing DNS filters on service providers.

Currently, one problem I have with the proposal is that”child” appears to be defined as “any internet user”. The default for filtering is “on”, so if I’m using a UK endpoint in my quest for utter filth, extreme views (whatever the hell that means), or anything else frowned upon by the government, I need to tell my ISP about it (or easily TOR round it).

Here, I’ll focus on porn because it’s controversial and ubiquitous, and because it seems to be receiving the lion’s share of the debate.

Since many people aren’t savvy enough or disciplined enough (that’s me) to use other methods for domain name resolution, or indeed to proxy their internet traffic, this will prevent many people from accessing a variety of legal content. This is a form of restriction of information – an activity extremely useful if you want to control a population. For this reason, any attempt at filtering the internet, even one as easily circumvented as this, should have a cast-iron, peer reviewed scientific justification, and should be subject to continuous independent public oversight to prevent the usual misuses. To be clear, freedom of information is so crucial to a democratic civilization, that even if it caused (it doesn’t) harm to children, there’s still a strong case for keeping it and finding another way to deal with the resulting harm (if any).

As you can probably infer from the last paragraph, I’m unconvinced that any harm comes from children, or other groups that we tend to feel entitled to curb, accessing controversial content. The bar of evidence should be astronomically high before any attempt is made to regulate what we or our children can read. I don’t think the evidence is even close now. What little evidence about the effects of pornography does exist, actually contradicts the received wisdom that porn is bad.

Another danger area is interpretation. If we agree that porn should be hard to reach, what do we call porn? Does satire involving sex count? What about sex education? Art? What the heck is art? That’s another loosely interpreted word that could be (and has been) used for censorship. I think the whole idea from concept to implementation is at best ineffective, and at worst, dangerous.