It’s not just the porn that will be over-blocked….

Newsnight last night included a feature on how the recently introduced internet ‘porn-filters’ were actually blocking more than just porn. Specifically, they noted that sex-education websites, sexual health websites and so forth were being blocked by the filters. This comes as no surprise to anyone working in the area – indeed, my own blog post asking questions about porn-filters was itself blocked – but it is still good to see that the mainstream media is now taking it on board, albeit very late in the day.

It wasn’t a bad feature, but it only began to scratch the surface of the issue. It left a lot of questions unanswered and a lot of crucial issues untouched. The first of these was the suggestion, insufficiently challenged, that this over-blocking was just some sort of ‘teething trouble’. Once the systems get properly up and running, the problems will be ironed out, and everything will work perfectly. As anyone who understands the systems would tell you, this is far from being the case: over-blocking is an inherent problem, one that will never go away. The nature of these filters, the fact that they essentially work algorithmically, means that they will always (and automatically) pick out sites that deal with the same subject matter as the ones that you are trying to block. If you want to block sites that deal with sex, you will block sites that deal with sex education, with sexuality and so forth. It will also be almost certain to block sites connected with LGBT issues, leaving a lot of young and vulnerable people without access to key information. Here, as in so many cases, ignorance is not bliss. Far from it. Now you can clean things up bit by bit in some cases, as site owners complain – but this is a slow and painstaking process, and anyway will only work when site owners discover that they have been blocked – something far from certain to occur. Very often, filtering/censorship will happen without anyone even noticing.

The second key absence from the Newsnight feature was the fact that these filters are not planned just to filter out pornography. They are planned to deal with a whole lot of other websites, from ‘extremism’ and ‘esoterica’, gambling, violence and so forth. Quite apart from the immense difficulty in defining things such as extremism and esoterica – let alone whether it is appropriate to block such sites in the first place – it needs to be remembered that the over blocking issue with porn sites will apply equally to these other sites. Blocking ‘extremist’ sites will end up blocking sites that discuss extremism, for example – and sites that might help people to find their way out of extremist groups and so forth. This won’t just fail to stop the growth in extremism – it will hinder attempts to prevent that growth. It won’t just fail to be effective – it will be actively counterproductive.

This is not an accident. Censorship in general does not work – and students of its history should be aware of this. Though freedom of speech should not be viewed as an absolute, it should be viewed as an ideal, and curtailing it without sufficient reason should only be done with great care and with great understanding. The blunt instrument of internet filtering has neither the care nor the understanding. It will do far more harm than good.

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