Privacy, Parenting and Porn

One of the stories doing the media rounds today surrounded the latest pronouncements from the Prime Minister concerning porn on the internet. Two of my most commonly used news sources, the BBC and the Guardian, had very different takes on in. The BBC suggested that internet providers were offering parents an opportunity to block porn (and ‘opt-in’ to website blocking) while the Guardian took it exactly the other way – suggesting that users would have to opt out of the blocking – or, to be more direct, to ‘opt-in’ to being able to receive porn.

Fool that I am, I fell for the Guardian’s version of the story (as did a lot of people, from the buzz on twitter) which seems now to have been thoroughly debunked, with the main ISPs saying that the new system would make no difference, and bloggers like the excellent David Meyer of ZDNet making it clear that the BBC was a lot closer to the truth. The idea would be that parents would be given the choice as to whether to accept the filtering/blocking system, which, on the face of it, seems much more sensible.

Even so, the whole thing sets off a series of alarm bells. Why does this sort of thing seem worrying? The first angle that bothers me is the censorship one – who is it that decides what is filtered and what is not? Where do the boundaries lie? One person’s porn is another person’s art – and standards are constantly changing. Cultural and religious attitudes all come into play. Now I’m not an expert in this area – and there are plenty of people who have written and said a great deal about it, far more eloquently than me – but at the very least it appears clear that there are no universal standards, and that decisions as to what should or should not be put on ‘block lists’ need to be made very carefully, with transparency about the process and accountability from those who make the decisions. There needs to be a proper notification and appeals process – because decisions made can have a huge impact. None of that appears true about most ‘porn-blocking’ systems, including the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation, often very misleadingly portrayed as an example of how this kind of thing should be done.

The censorship side of things, however, is not the angle that interests me the most. Two others are of far more interest: the parenting angle, and the privacy angle. As a father myself, of course I want to protect my child – but children need independence and privacy, and need to learn how to protect themselves. The more we try to wrap them in cotton wool, to make their world risk-free, the less able they are to learn how to judge for themselves, and to protect themselves. If I expect technology, the prime minister, the Internet Watch Foundation to do all the work for me, not only am I abdicating responsibility as a parent but I’m denying my child the opportunity to learn and to develop. The existence of schemes like the one planned could work both ways at once: it could make parents think that their parenting job is done for them, and it could also reduce children’s chances to learn to discriminate, to decide, and to develop their moral judgment….

….but that is, of course, a very personal view. Other parents might view it very differently – what we need is some kind of balance, and, as noted above, proper transparency and accountability.

The other angle is that of privacy. Systems like this have huge potential impacts on privacy, in many different ways. One, however, is of particular concern to me. First of all, suppose the Guardian was right, and you had to ‘opt-in’ to be able to view the ‘uncensored internet’. That would create a database of people who might be considered ‘people who want to watch porn’. How long before that becomes something that can be searched when looking for potential sex offenders? If I want an uncensored internet, does that make me a potential paedophile? Now the Guardian appears to be wrong, and instead we’re going to have to opt-in to accept the filtering system – so there won’t be a list of people who want to watch porn, instead a list of people who want to block porn. It wouldn’t take much work, however, on the customer database of a participating ISP to select all those users who had the option to choose the blocking system, and didn’t take it. Again, you have a database of people who, if looked at from this perspective, want to watch porn….

Now maybe I’m overreacting, maybe I’m thinking too much about what might happen rather than what will happen – but slippery slopes and function creep are far from rare in this kind of a field. I always think of the words of Bruce Schneier, on a related subject:

“It’s bad civic hygiene to build technologies that could someday be used to facilitate a police state”

Now I’m not suggesting that this kind of thing would work like this – but the more ‘lists’ and ‘databases’ we have of people who don’t do what’s ‘expected’ of them, or what society deems ‘normal’, the more opportunities we create for potential abuse. We should be very careful…

2 thoughts on “Privacy, Parenting and Porn

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