Immoral panic

Wendy M Grossman puts forward her argument against David Cameron's proposals to censor pornographic material on the internet.

Image: The cookies of the internet by Kalexanderson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

"The Internet perceives censorship as damage, and routes around it," John Gilmore famously said. I've quoted that aphorism as often as anybody, but it's only really true if by "Internet" you mean "the collection of people who use the Internet". Otherwise, you're giving a mass of computers, cables, and software programs both sentience and agency.

On his home page, where Gilmore has the quote pegged to an article that appeared in Time in 1993, he provides context that people usually forget:

In its original form, it meant that the Usenet software (which moves messages around in discussion newsgroups) was resistant to censorship because, if a node drops certain messages because it doesn't like their subject, the messages find their way past that node anyway by some other route. This is also a reference to the packet-routing protocols that the Internet uses to direct packets around any broken wires or fiber connections or routers. (They don't redirect around selective censorship, but they do recover if an entire node is shut down to censor it.)

The meaning of the phrase has grown through the years. Internet users have proven it time after time, by personally and publicly replicating information that is threatened with destruction or censorship. If you now consider the Net to be not only the wires and machines, but the people and their social structures who use the machines, it is more true than ever.

The problem is that censorship - especially in the form of a blunt instrument aimed at a class of material rather than a specific piece - can also cause lots of damage, most of which will hit targets other than those intended. People who can route around it will; those who cannot will have to live in Sconthorpe.

When, on Monday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced his clutch of anti-pornography measures, including nationwide filtering by default, the creation of a blacklist of search engine terms, and the outlawing of possession of "extreme" pornography, for some of us it felt like 1996 all over again. As net.wars noted in 2011, the Internet is not television; there is no easy button to push. It's also not a newspaper, where the editor could at any time stop publishing topless photos on page 3 - a campaign that Cameron has refused to back.

The problems with Cameron's proposals are quickly summarized. First, under the rubric of protecting children he conflates removing illegal material (child abuse images) and blocking material that is legal, however distasteful. Second, a blacklist of "abhorrent" search engine terms will inevitably set off an arms race (blacklist installed; pedophiles create new codes), increasing the likelihood of "stumbling upon" (as happened in the mid-1990s with newsgroups). In any case, search engines are the wrong targets here. Average Internet users are still learning to care enough about protecting their privacy to avoid being tracked, but the tiny minority of obsessives who wish to share pictures of child abuse already have. Finally, if consumers are not opting for filtering on their broadband it's not because of a dastardly plot by ISPs. Let's be clear: this is not just about blocking pornography, and not just because historically, filtering has always led to overblocking. The list of options revealed to the Open Rights Group shows clearly that filtering will not be limited to pornography. The level of safety implied by that list is one that technical experts will tell you ISPs can't deliver - and a false sense of safety carries its own risks.

None of this is new. For the most complete takedown see Lilian Edwards at Pangloss. As Edwards notes, even police experts known for their long-standing interest in protecting children like Jim Gamble have poured scorn on the proposals. Charles Arthur at the Guardian, outlines the effort Internet companies put into removing and denying access to child abuse images and studies the much more complex issues around legal material. I also had a lengthy discussions with the BBC World Service (starts about 40 minutes in), where my host seemed to be genuinely struggling with understanding how to protect his children in the age of the Internet.

In 1996, when the social medium du jour was Usenet, everyone blamed ISPs for making the wrong sort of newsgroups available, and ISPs that opposed censorship on principles became targets of media attacks. The result of that was the formation of the Internet Watch Foundation. Today, helped out by public distaste for large corporations that pay little or no British tax, the same kinds of accusations are being levelled at the search engines, primarily Google. Accidentally matching people with things they were not looking for is not how Google makes its money, nor is linking to material that puts the company in disrepute.

Cameron may not get the votes he wants out of this either, no matter how happy he's made the Daily Mail right now. As Charles Arthur also writes, porn is popular. Maybe, as a commenter to that article wrote, more popular than Cameron. Especially with families whose benefits are being cut.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted irregularly during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

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By Wendy M Grossman on Jul 30, 2013

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