It may be grabbing headlines but British prime minister David Cameron’s plan to compel internet service providers (ISPs) to block pornographic material comprises little that is new.
In 2004, the Australian government said it would make ISPs responsible for restricting access to certain types of hardcore adult material. But when it decided to introduce a system that would block websites that included everything from child pornography to terrorist content, the outcry was so great plans were abandoned.
Britain’s ISPs are being presented with a stark choice: act, and block access to certain content, or the authorities will act for you.
If the proposals go ahead, by the end of next year customers will have to inform their ISP if they want to have unfiltered internet access. By the end of this year, new customers will be unable to access material that is deemed pornographic, unless the adult account holder instructs the ISP otherwise.
To listen to Cameron, you could be forgiven for thinking that all it will take is the flick of a switch by ISPs and the battle to protect people from hardcore pornography will be won. Experts say it’s not that easy however.
There are several reasons why blocking easy access to porn could be considered a positive thing. The growing use of the internet by children is one. Blocking adult sites would reduce the risk they might happen upon pornographic material when searching for something more innocent.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has backed the proposals, describing the measures as a big step forward in taking firm action to block young people from accessing pornography.
“This isn’t about censorship or restricting freedom,” NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said. “It’s simply about protecting children.”
Not everyone agrees. Dermot Williams of Irish IT security firm Threatscape said filters may help reduce the number of people who accidentally access porn, by mistyping URLS or getting redirected to adult sites. However, the effectiveness may not be as high as the British government desires.
The proposals ignore evidence that filtering doesn’t work.
In China, for example, where the state exerts a lot of control over what can be accessed online, there are still ways to get around the content blocks and filters. “For those who are determined and want to find it, there are many ways on the internet to access material that people don’t want you to,” said Williams.
The breadth of the measures may be an issue also. This can sometimes result in legitimate websites getting caught up in the filters; campaigners fear that these new restrictions will lead to sites dealing with sexual health, for example, getting blocked. And it won’t necessarily result in adult sites getting blocked, even if the ISPs put the filters on place.
“On the internet there are thousands of sites every day. With some of these guys it’s like whack a mole: they keep popping up. You block it and it pops up in another. Commercial porn operators are in it to make money. They’re deliberately trying to be evasive.”
The proposals may seem like a step in the right direction, but they could prove unworkable and ineffective.