July 25, 2013 | Jim Killock

Sleepwalking into censorship

After brief conversations with some of the Internet Service Providers that will be implementing the UK's "pornwall" we've established a little bit about what it will be doing. To be fair, the BBC were pretty close.


The essential detail is that they will assume you want filters enabled across a wide range of content, and unless you un-tick the option, network filters will be enabled. As we’ve said repeatedly, it’s not just about hardcore pornography.

You'll encounter something like this:

EDIT NOTE: the category examples are based on current mobile configurations and broad indications from ISPs

(1) Screen one

"Parental controls"
Do you want to install / enable parental controls
☑ yes
☐ no

[next]

(2) Screen two [if you have left the box ticked]

“Parental controls”

Do you want to block

☑ pornography
☑ violent material
☑ extremist and terrorist related content
☑ anorexia and eating disorder websites
☑ suicide related websites
☑ alcohol
☑ smoking
☑ web forums
☑ esoteric material
☑ web blocking circumvention tools

You can opt back in at any time

[continue]

The precise pre-ticked options may vary from service to service.

What's clear here is that David Cameron wants people to sleepwalk into censorship. We know that people stick with defaults: this is part of the idea behind 'nudge theory' and 'choice architecture' that is popular with Cameron.

The implication is that filtering is good, or at least harmless, for anyone, whether adult or child. Of course, this is not true; there's not just the question of false positives for web users, but the affect on a network economy of excluding a proportion of a legitimate website's audience.

There comes a point that it is simply better to place your sales through Amazon and ebay, and circulate your news and promotions exclusively through Facebook and Twitter, as you know none of these will ever be filtered.

Meanwhile ISPs face the unenviable customer relations threat of increased complaints as customers who hadn't paid much attention find websites unexpectedly blocked.

Just as bad, filters installed with no thought cannot be expected to set appropriately for children of different ages.

Of course, all of this could be easily avoided by simply having an 'active choice' as the ISPs originally suggested: with no preset defaults, forcing customers to specify whether they wanted filters, or not.

It's really very surprising that Cameron's campaign has spent six months insisting on a system designed to fail consumers, threatening ISPs with legislation if they didn't use the inaccurate, error prone method that Number 10 seem to believe in.

If it all seems to work badly, at what point is it ok for ISPs to start running their own businesses, and change the setup screens?

Update


We've launched a petition calling for David Cameron to drop his plans for default Internet filtering. Sign the petition here: https://www.openrightsgroup.org/campaigns/cameron-stop-sleepwalking