A number of government proposals put the free flow of information in the UK at risk. Movie studios and music companies want "streamlined" quasi-judicial arrangements with ISPs that would expedite blocking websites accused of copyright infringement. Some MPs would like ISPs to block all adult material by default (as all mobile network operators currently do), requiring anyone wishing to view such material to opt in. The Home Office's Prevent strategy would bypass legal processes or court orders to ban "terrorist" websites in schools, libraries, academic institutions, and government buildings – and would encourage consumer ISPs to ban them, too. The police have pushed, so far unsuccessfully, to ban hate crime websites.
The Open Rights Group contends that the basic issue with all of these proposals is that they attempt to find a technological fix for social problems. We do not believe that blocking will work to satisfy any of the key policy objectives for which it is proposed and should therefore be rejected as an approach. Censorship is counter-productive. The targeted materials are not removed, merely blocked, so that people determined to access them can still do so. Instead, censorship allows the target to appear both powerful and victimised. And it allows government censors to pretend they have addressed the problem, pushing the prospect of real action even further away. It is superficially attractive to politicians, but censorship should be welcomed by every terrorist, racist and copyright infringer.
The most important technology in use to implement Internet censorship in the UK today is Cleanfeed, software developed by BT to implement the recommendations of the Internet Watch Foundation. Based on reports from the public via email or telephone, the IWF compiles a list of sites hosting child abuse images its staff believe are potentially illegal, and forwards it to police for investigation and to ISPs for blocking. Most current censorship proposals envision expanding the range of material included in Cleanfeed. The early 2012 case against Newzbin2, for example, revolved around rightsholders' request that BT adapt Cleanfeed to block the site.
Unlike child abuse images, much of the material these new initiatives seek to block is hard to define precisely. ISPs are not copyright experts, nor are they qualified to pass judgment on what constitutes hate speech or pornography; the upshot will be over-blocking of legal sites and material out of an excess of caution and a desire to save on costs. We believe it is more appropriate to give parents the tools to manage Internet access at home according to their own values and solve social problems by appropriately drafted social policy. The better answer to online copyright infringement, for example, is fast, reliable, high-quality, reasonably priced legal services, which the entertainment industry has been slow to develop.
There are many technical reasons (PDF) why blocking is ineffective. While it prevents accidental discovery by the majority and allows authorities to claim they have "done something", blocking gives a false sense of security. It is trivially easy to bypass for the portion of the population – both site owners and users – who are determined, motivated, and technically adept. In addition, blocking is a crude instrument, carrying with it the significant risks of over-blocking, of insufficient redress, of damage to innovation, and of driving the widespread adoption of avoidance measures such as encryption and anonymising technologies. Moving a step forward to ban or break these would have serious repercussions for the privacy and security of consumers online.
The Newzbin2 case is a telling example: it quickly provided its UK users with tools to bypass the country's first court-mandated block. More broadly, the history of attacks on file-sharing technologies and sites has clearly shown that this approach spawns an arms race to create new, more resistant technology but does nothing to slow the spread of copyrighted material online. In other areas, such as hate speech and adult material, blocking glamorises the target, giving it the excitement of "forbidden fruit" and its purveyors the aura of martyrs.
If used at all, blocking should be necessary, proportionate, and the best way of achieving the stated goals, based on independent evidence assessed by a court. It should respect fundamental rights such as freedom of expression. It should be transparent. And it should be implemented through a fair and clear legal process. So far, none of the government's proposals passes these tests.
But obeying human rights principles won't make censorship a sensible policy. It can limit its ill-effects. But what is really needed is a culture shift, so that we understand that the best answer to bad speech is better speech; and that we shouldn't hand easy propaganda victories to people with destructive ideas.
What you can do:
- Report inappropriate blocks on your mobile Internet to our website Blocked.org.uk.
- Write to your MP to say you are worried about censorship.
- Read our briefing to Ed Vaizey, MP.
- Read more detail about UK Internet censorship on our wiki page.
- Join ORG.