Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Hadrian's Firewall" and Internet Censorship in Britain...

Without much attention, just before Christmas British ISPs put into effect a new system whereby all Internet subscribers would be required to actively choose whether they wanted filtering that would block material in broad categories such as sex, alcohol, violence, and hate speech.  At first glance, this doesn't seem too awful.  The decision is in the hands of the individual consumer, and not the government or a private corporation, right?

But here's the rub.  As laid out by TechPresident's Wendy Grossman, the biggest complaints are that there is no transparency about what is being blocked, it's extremely difficult to get an innocent site unblocked, and that the filters can be easily bypassed by determined individuals anyway.  The patchwork of different ISPs using different filtering methods has made it "almost impossible for the owner of a small online business to find out if it's being erroneously blocked and by whom - and no ISP seems to have a clear mechanism for redress".

Furthermore, the "blunt-instrument approach" to categories can lead to major problems.  For example, very legitimate websites have been blocked including child abuse hotlines, suicide prevention sites, and even many police websites - linked in the broad categorization of the filters to "violence".  This is reminiscent of problems filters have raised in U.S. schools and libraries where, for example, information-based websites about breast cancer were categorized by algorithms as being linked to pornography.

Clearly this is a problem and a far too common consequence resulting from the very noble goal of providing parents with filtering options for their children.  However, the best strategy for providing parents with filtering choices ought to be based exactly on that - more choices.  Richard Clayton is right that the best path forward lies in making it easier for people to install good user-controllable filtering tools on their own machines rather than having them controlled at the ISPs end.  Not everybody in a household has the same needs and requirements, so putting the decision-making capability in hands of users, allowing for more customization and reviewable analysis, ought to help ensure that filtering does not become the first step in a slippery-slope towards censorship.

And for goodness sake, let's have a little transparency, please.



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