UK’s web blocking programme begins

UK’s web blocking programme begins

When I previously wrote about the UK’s Prime Minister (David Cameron) calling for web blocking, I finished my article with the conclusion that “It is likely that Mr Cameron will realise how unworkable his proposals are, and after conversations with the industry and campaigners followed by a series of increasingly vague speeches on the subject, they will be quietly dropped in the run-up to the UK’s general election in 2015.”.   The actions of UK ISPs this week, however, have proven me wrong.

Blocking has becomePick a button any button default for every new subscriber to an ISP service and will soon be extended to all existing subscribers, with each given a “choice” of several different filtering levels.

As widely predicted, however, the impact of these filters has already been catastrophic.  In an investigation by “Newsnight” (a widely respected political and current affairs TV programme on the BBC) it was shown that not only had blocking missed many high-traffic and well-known sources of pornography, but blocks were in place for Edinburgh Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, Doncaster Domestic Abuse Helpline and Sexual Health Scotland and “Porn Addiction” support websites (amongst others).  Also being blocked are high-street clothes shops (triggering “fashion” blocking), websites for childrens’ books and major political commentary websites.  In the most short-sighted of cases, one of the websites blocked is the official LGBT website of the junior coalition parter, the Liberal Democrats.

The danger with these blocks is that not only are they ineffective (there have been plenty of workarounds touted, including by the aforementioned political blog) but that the language in which this entire campaign has been launched is tainted; the blocks were originally mooted to block child pornography, and these are still the terms of the debate.  The blocking, predictably, has since moved to all forms of pornography, to proxies, to entire swathes of political ideology, to fashion blogs and retailers, and to websites “where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy“.

Many people, many activists are fighting these blocks, but the solution is not a technological work-around.  What is needed right now is education as to why blocking is so dangerous in the first place.

As is obvious to many, young people know far more about computers than their guardians and can easily route around these blocks.  Even worse, in conjunction with the closure of many medical walk-in centres in the UK, a source of discrete advice about domestic abuse, putting the control of accessible websites on the subject purely in the hands of the “bill payer” is a scary one indeed (as very eloquently pointed out by this reddit poster).

It can only be hoped that these blocking platforms are rolled back before they cause too much actual harm.


All images: CC BY PPUK