I've just been interviewed on Radio 5 about the Prime Ministers idea on saving us all from pornography by making it an opt-in system. The insanity behind this idea leaves me entirely speechless, but I will do my best to overcome that and tell you why I think it's not only a bad idea, but it's an offense against all of us, regardless of if we do or don't look at pornography.
The idea is that that ISP's will have to contact people to ask if they want to opt into a system. I don't even understand what that means - does this mean that what we type is going to be filtered when it reaches the ISP? Does it mean that certain sites will be blacklisted? Does it mean that certain images are going to blocked from reaching us? Let's look at each possibility in turn. Who defines what a 'bad' word is? This is particularly important if you are a medical librarian for example - the chances are that perfectly acceptable terms are going to be blocked. If it's done on a word by word basis are we going to end up with - as we did in with AOL in the 90's - people in Scunthorpe being unable to search for their location. If we're having a banned word list, people will just make up new words. If sites are blacklisted, what about the 600 new sites that come online *every minute*. Who is going to be responsible for checking them? If certain images are blocked, this might be done on the basis of the amount of flesh available (it is possible to do this), which means the innocent shots of you and your partner on the beach might be blocked.
There are already filtering systems available - search engines have them by default. You can add filtering software yourself if you want to protect your children. The woman from the (I think) NSPCC was complaining that it was 'too difficult' for parents to do it. If parents are capable of buying a computer and setting it up, they're capable of installing software that is designed to be easy to do just that. How insulting - how insulting to assume that it's too complicated for people to do. And, if it is, then parents need to damn well step up to the plate and learn how to use the computer in their household. They either care enough about their children's safety to do something about it, or they don't. Why should your choice be taken away from you because of them? And it's not about watching porn at all - it's about having the *choice* to watch it. There's already another filtering system in place - you. If you don't want to look at porn, don't look for it; that's the opt-in system there already. And if you're concerned about seeing images that you don't want, put your own filters on, or use those provided by search engines.
The next problem - sites that are perfectly acceptable and widely used which have pornographic content, such as Flickr. Does opting out mean that you can't look at Flickr? If you can still look at Flickr, you're still going to be able to look at pornography without typing in any words that are going to be blocked. And if words are blocked - do you really want to have a system where an ISP is checking every single word that you write?
Extreme imagery will continue unabaited, despite all of these blocks, because they will come through bit torrent sites or via encryption or private bulletin boards. This ridiculous idea won't help with any of that. Cameron is also talking about 'images of rape'. Again, I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. If it's photographs of a real rape, this is going to be covered under existing laws. If it's images depicting rape scenarios, then we're going to find that we can't watch a lot of films - Straw Dogs comes to mind for example. Does this mean that a movie website can or will be coming under the blocked list? Even if you have no interest in looking at this type of material, but you want to watch movies, is that going to mean you have to opt in, just to watch the other films you want to see?
The really big screaming hypocrisy here of course is that it's apparently a bad thing to see two people physically loving each other, but it's perfectly acceptable to watch their heads being blown off. Not a word about violence at all! If we're going to be adversely affected by pornography, aren't we also going to be affected by violent imagery? You can't really go down one route without going down both. And this is another reason why this is an offence to all of us - are we really saying that we're so weak willed that watching porn or violent imagery is going to make us go out and do it ourselves? Actually, most of us have this thing called 'respect for other people'. Sure - child murderers have got child abuse images on their systems - anyone who is going to kill a child has issues that run a lot deeper than looking at images, and it can easily be argued that they'll use whatever material they can - including Mothercare catalogues - to justify to themselves that they're ok in doing what they do. Are we all to be tarred with the same brush? Apparently we are. Here's the thing - Cameron thinks you might abuse a child. He thinks, if you're a bloke, that you might rape someone because you've looked at porn. If that doesn't make you angry, it damn well should.
If Cameron is actually interested in reducing either instances of extreme pornography, or particularly child abuse images, why has the funding to CEOPS been cut? He's bleating on about how terrible this stuff is (and yes, he's absolutely right to), but he doesn't actually want to do anything about it himself. He's expecting Google et al to do the work for him. They're already doing a lot. He's expecting ISPs to do it - where do they get the money? That's right, they're going to get it off you and I by increasing subscriptions.
That's not what this is all about though. It's another attempt to get government controls onto the internet. The woman from the NSPCC was most enlightening here... Nicky Campbell said to her - and I'm paraphrasing - 'what about violent material?' She was very up for that too - she wanted to ban that as well. Where does this stop? I don't want to go all thin end of the wedge here, but if this is enacted, what could happen next? What if we get a government that doesn't like gays? It does happen; look at the Tory party. With a structure in place, it's going to be easy to force people to opt into anything a government doesn't like or wants to control.
So you see, it's not about if you watching pornography or not. It's about the right to chose to watch material that is at stake. It's about a government, under the usual 'we must protect the children' mantra to control the rest of us. And I'll bet any money that you like that there will be a surreptitious linking of the freedom to search for material and perverts looking for porn. I can see it already 'oh no, you're really interested in freedom of thought and expression, that's just a cover for the fact that you want to look at pornography.' Adults should be able to make adult decisions for themselves, and parents have to take responsibility for their children.