The Open Rights Group is asking people to sign a petition asking David Cameron not to require Internet Service Providers to switch on ‘adult’ web filters by default, meaning that anyone who wishes to access certain kinds of material online will have to ask their ISP to switch off the filter.

Although such a measure has been promoted by the government and papers such as the Mail on the back of perfectly reasonable parental fears about children watching pornography, it is actually fraught with problems and needs to be firmly resisted.

Firstly, filters are an extremely crude tool, and there is a good deal of hard evidence, from the US and elsewhere, which shows that filters which target pornographic content are also highly liable to block access to educational material on sexual health and other aspects of sexuality.

Second, it is highly likely that the government will want ISPs to filter much more than simply pornographic content.

Based on conversations with ISPs, and on categories of material currently blocked by mobile phone providers, the Open Rights Group suggests that those who do not opt to have the filter switched off will then be presented with a series of pre-ticked boxes inviting them to block the following content:

  • Pornography.
  • Violent material.
  • Extremist and terrorist related  content.
  • Anorexia and eating disorder websites.
  • Suicide related websites.
  • Alcohol.
  • Smoking.
  • Web forums.
  • Esoteric material.
  • Web blocking circumvention tools.

Given people’s propensity to stick with default settings on their computers, this is a classic example of ‘nudging’ – that is, utilising positive reinforcement and indirect suggestion to try to achieve voluntary compliance with government policy. And, needless to say, the list of materials to be filtered will be decided entirely behind closed doors, almost certainly in consultation with the Internet Watch Foundation, which has a glaring public accountability deficit.

A third reason to reject the filtering proposal is that filters encourage an attitude of ‘set it and forget it’, and thus risk giving parents a false sense of security. At the moment, ISPs offer what they call Active Choice, where customers are asked to make informed decisions about the level of filtering which they wish to be applied to their home computers. However, as the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones revealed in the run-up to Cameron’s announcement about filtering on 22 July, the Department of Education wrote to ISPs to ask them if they would, in effect, present ‘default-on’ as being akin to what they are currently offering.

In order to appreciate the sheer disingenuousness, not to mention intellectual dishonesty, of what the government is proposing, it’s worth quoting the relevant passage from the letter in full:

The prime minister believes that there is much more that we can all do to improve how we communicate the current position on parental internet controls and that there is a need for a simplified message to reassure parents and the public more generally. Without changing what you will be offering (i.e. active choice +), the prime minister would like to be able to refer to your solutions are ‘default-on’ as people will have to make a choice not to have the filters (by unticking the box). Can you consider how to include this language (or similar) in the screens that begin the set-up process? For example, ‘this connection includes family-friendly filters as default [or as standard] – if you do not want to install this protection please un-tick the box’ (obviously not intended to be drafting). Would you be able to commit to including ‘default-on’ or similar language both in the set-up screen and public messaging?

But making a choice not to have filters, particularly if the filtering/non-filtering decision is taken in the loaded circumstances suggested above, is quite different from, and far less active than, deciding, without any form of prompting from the government via your ISP, whether or not to install filters, and, if you do indeed decide to install a filter, which particular kinds of content  you want blocked (and without the aid of a supposedly ‘helpful’ list).

The final reason to resist the proposed filtering system is that in a society subject to such intense online surveillance as the UK, it will be child’s play for official snoopers to discover who has asked their ISP to switch off the adult web filter (or, for that matter, who has availed themselves of TOR or other anti-snooping software).

From there it is but a series of short steps to compiling a database of such users, labelling them as potential sex offenders or terrorists, and subjecting them to even higher degrees of online (and indeed offline) surveillance than the rest of us.

Few would deny that children being able to access pornography online raises a number of serious issues. However, for the reasons outlined above, censorship is not the way to deal with those issues. As the Open Rights Group argues:

The Government should help people make informed choices about what sorts of websites their household can visit.  Instead of trying to make decisions for parents, the Government should give them better support. Help parents to actively decide which sites to make more difficult for their children to visit. Concentrate on encouraging them to talk to their children about their online and offline activity.

This is active choice in the proper sense of the phrase, and indeed a similar point was made by Reg Bailey in his Letting Children be Children report for the Mothers Union in 2011.

Schools, too, have a crucial role to play here in educating pupils,  not simply about the internet but about sex too. But herein lies the rub. Thanks to papers such as the Mail, which has vociferously led the campaign for internet filtering, it is almost impossible to have a sensible debate about any public policy relating to sexual matters – sex education most emphatically included.

A favourite Mail tactic is to pick on one particular area of concern (in this case, children watching pornography on the internet), and then to conflate it with various other apparently similar but in fact quite different matters of concern, thus giving the impression of an all-engulfing crisis which immediately demands urgent attention in the form of stringent new laws and regulations. So, rapidly added to the initial problem by the Mail (and other newspapers) were: children participating in the making of pornography, adults watching pornography featuring children, and adults watching pornography involving scenes of simulated adult rape.

But each of these raises entirely different issues, different from both the initial object of concern and from each other. Thus, children cannot give informed consent to participating in pornography, and hence to involve them in it is to commit an act of sexual abuse; to possess such material is to encourage, or at least be complicit with, its production, and thus it too is illegal; scenes of simulated rape, acted out by adults, do not raise the issue of consent, and it is currently legal to possess pornography involving such scenes; however the government wants to make such pornography the subject of a possession offence on the grounds that it allegedly encourages violence to women in real life.

This febrile atmosphere is most emphatically not one which is in the least bit conducive to sensible law-making. But, time and again, laws constraining people’s viewing habits have been made in just such an atmosphere – and with entirely predictable consequences.

Thus clauses in the Protection of Children Act 1978, passed in the slipstream of an earlier panic about children and pornography, largely engineered by Mary Whitehouse, resulted in the prosecution of parents who took photographs of their children naked in the bath or swimming pool; the Video Recordings Act 1984, the result of a press-inspired panic about ‘video nasties’, landed us with state video censorship and saw thousands of video titles withdrawn by distributors who didn’t want to pay the certification fees levied by the British Board of Film Classification on every feature film distributed on video; and the ‘extreme pornography’ provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2008, passed on the back of yet another Mail-fuelled panic, this time about websites featuring bondage, means that it is illegal to possess images of certain acts (for example, anal fisting) which it is entirely legal actually to commit!

In all of the cases mentioned above, the press, and especially the Mail, has played a leading role in calling for the censorship of other media – to put it mildly, a curious situation for a medium which guards its own freedom so ferociously. One would have thought that press freedom was simply a particular form of media freedom, but certain British papers clearly feel that they should enjoy a freedom which they are quite happy to attempt to deny to other media.

Furthermore, for the Mail in particular to campaign against certain kinds of images of children is, at best, queasy and hypocritical when one considers how young girls are frequently represented in its online version. For example, on 1 November 2012, under the headline ‘Lady Liberty! Teenager Elle Fanning Shows off her Womanly Curves as she Pays Homage to New York Statue’ the paper leeringly reported of the fourteen-year-old that ‘she wasn’t afraid to flaunt her curves for the camera’ and continued:

Elle was a posing professional as she wore a metallic maxi dress which looked rather demure at first glance. Although it covered up her chest area and thighs, the design featured a high split which allowed her to pop her leg out of the side. When she turned around, flesh was on show as the cut-out material scooped to just above her derriere and featured clasps which fastened at the centre of her neck.

The fact that this was later changed, after a Twitter storm, doesn’t for one moment let off the hook the editorial judgement that allowed it to appear in the first place. And on 23 September 2012, the MailOnline ran an article headed ‘Fury at “Creepshot” Internet Bulletin Board where Users Post Sexual Pictures of Unsuspecting Women Snapped in Schools’ which was illustrated by – yes, you guessed – four creepshot images, two of which were of schoolgirls. Again, the fact that the pictures were removed fifteen hours after they appeared in no way excuses their appearance in the first place.

None of the above is intended to suggest that children’s access to pornography on the Internet is not a matter of real concern. But it is to repeat the maxim that hard cases make bad law, and to suggest that when the press and politicians demand that Something Must be Done, a long period of calm reflection is called for.

Unfortunately, with politicians in such thrall to papers like the Mail, this is about as unlikely as Rupert Murdoch selling his global media empire and donating the entire proceeds to charity.

Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media and Journalism at Brunel University, Chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, a member of the advisory board of Index on Censorship and of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review. He has written widely on the press.