Web censorship culture entrenches itself in Britain's parliament

Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, scraped an election win on the back of promises like the ‘big society’. Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that there was no society, just individuals. This particular piece of post-Maggie Tory spin was supposed to unite people into taking responsibility for their own actions and communities. It has been anything but. A cursory glance, let alone an in-depth analysis of the UK’s proposed policies about internet governence suggests that this parliament distrusts the individual actions of people more than any before it.

Anyone who flagged this week’s blocking of file-sharing website The Pirate Bay as setting an unsettling precedent will not feel encouraged by the latest calls to further put the boot in over personal freedoms. 

The latest from the government is that it will consult on new measures to protect children from internet pornography, according to the BBC. Rather than encouraging any form of autonomy, a Conservative backbenchers is firmly basing her pleas on a “Helen Lovejoy” approach to politics – baying for further censorship from ISPs because, really, we must think of the children. 

Conservative MP Claire Perry said internet service providers have been “dragging their feet” on the problem of pornography, and even that they have been “complicit” in exposing children to adult material. The way the issue of censorship is framed is particularly emotive, and designed to stir the heart rather than engage in the logic of the brain: who doesn’t want to protect our children? Let’s not sugarcoat this, though. It is proposed state censorship.

Labour’s shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman agreed: “Keeping children safe online is a real problem and a concern for millions of parents,” she said. “We need to work closely with the industry to develop blocking technology which is easy to use and effective so that parents have the control they need to protect their children”. Censorship, then, is on the agenda of both of the mainstream parties. 

Director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, Nick Pickles, told the BBC that the consultation, at least, was a positive step in the right direction. Speaking with cautious optimism, Pickles suggested that it’s a healthy sign debate is on the table rather than immediate reactionary policy. But consultations are what the government makes of them. Labour, before it suffered a defeat in the general elections, ignored much of the criticisms against it and rushed through the largely maligned Digital Economy Act.

Censorship does not work. Think of it in terms of prohibition. Heavy-handed enforcement that punishes large swathes of the population – nice try, RIAA, circa Napster – did little to stem piracy. All even the most technologically un-savvy need to do to get around censorship is spend one or two minutes on Google, and another ten minutes reading. When there’s a will, there’s a way, could not be truer. At most censorship is an inconvenience. Virgin Media became the first service provider to block access to The Pirate Bay. Accessing it regardless could not be much easier

Pickles, speaking with TechEye, agreed that “web-blocking is a crude tool” which “does not prevent determined users accessing content.” 

“The broader consequences risk damaging legitimate businesses and undermining cyber security while further perpetuating the myth that this is an easy technological solution to a complex problem,” Pickles said.

“Ultimately,” Pickles said, “the risk is that ISPs will be expected to monitor everything their customers do online to ensure they are not doing something they should not be.” Indeed, it is “almost inevitable certain groups will call for this” when internet censorship is exposed as ineffective and easily avoided. 

“As the calls for greater surveillance of our online activity intensify, the long term risk is that the state will take on the function of deciding what we are allowed to see online,” he said.

The last point is especially troubling. Just where does censorship draw the line – and who is drawing that line? It certainly does not appear to be a democratic process.

Some would argue that the internet is the biggest society we’re ever going to get. Users can communicate, transfer information or data at increasingly fast speeds. The society is global and, as web access is considered a ‘right’, the participants will ultimately be almost everyone. There is no chance reactionary back-benchers can compete with that: they have think-tanks and tabloid campaigns. Citizens of the web have among their ranks the world’s greatest thinkers, often collaborating enthusiastically and without a profit motive. As a result, crowdsourced intelligence will always be one, if not several, steps ahead of censor-happy bureaucracies. There is already a very, very, big society. It is the world. And it is mobilised, online.