Are Cameron’s porn filters ineffective?

The internet filters touted by Cameron have blocked sites such as the Lib Dems' own LGBT site.

Censorship JPEG

Ghaffar Hussain is head of research at counter-extremism think tank Quilliam

David Cameron raised alarm in July last year when he announced that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would be introducing porn filters.

This meant that customers would either have porn filters automatically switched on when they subscribed to an internet broadband service, or they would be offered a choice of whether to switch the filter on or off once the service commenced.

In a not-so-rare show of coalition disunity, these measures were roundly criticised by members of the Lib Dems and others, being deemed too crude and inappropriate as a means to deal with the issue of children accessing hardcore pornography.

Events since July last year seem to have vindicated the scepticism. According to Lib Dem president Tim Farron, quoted in the Independent, “essential sites on sexual health, gender and sexuality, domestic violence and LGBT rights are being blocked”.

He has also said porn filters were ineffective and illiberal whilst giving parents a false sense of security.

There are a number of problems with the porn filter system as it exists today. Firstly, it relies on the assumption that porn can only be consumed via static websites, when in reality porn can, and frequently, is shared on social media and networking sites, such as Twitter, Paltalk etc.

Such sites rely on user-generated content and it is virtually impossible to make sure they remain free of pornographic content at all times. Other sites that rely on file sharing are even more difficult to police.

Secondly, determined users can circumvent existing filters anyway. In fact, Chrome offers an aptly named browser extension called ‘Go Away Cameron’, which can allows user to circumvent existing porn filters. Circumvention aside, many porn sites are still available even when the filters turned on, thus, they are simply not sophisticated enough to do the job they claim to do.

Thirdly, since these filters rely on content filtering, they also filter out educational websites which young people should, and need to be able to access.

Thus, educational websites that teach about safe sex and discuss sexuality and gender are also being affected by these filters. This is because many of these educational sites use the same keywords as porn sites and the filters are not sophisticated enough to distinguish.

Much more controversially, these filters have also blocked LGBT sites, including the Lib Dems own LGBT site. This has caused alarm in the LGBT community, especially since the London Friend, one of the oldest LGBT charities in the UK, was also blocked.

Clearly, young people accessing and consuming hardcore and age inappropriate porn is a problem and, with evidence suggesting that this is a rising trend, something should be done about it.

However, crude and illiberal filters imposed by governments are not the solution. There is nothing wrong with broadband internet services coming with a range of child friendly filters that parents and guardians can switch on and off at will.

The real solution lies in parents, teachers and others working with young people to teach them about sexual health and relationships as well as respect for members of the opposite sex. Learning to have a healthy attitude toward sex and approaching intimacy with another person with sensitivity and empathy would make the difference.

Hence, the emphasis should be on education, advice and support rather than crude and ineffective porn filters.

3 Responses to “Are Cameron’s porn filters ineffective?”

  1. Chris Puttick

    Porn is the wrong target, it’s an end-point of a process. What is needed are filters that deal with content on an age-appropriate basis, managed by the those responsible for the child.

  2. John Carr

    All that the ISPs are doing is making it easier for parents who want filters to be able to turn them on. If they don’t want the filters a mouse click or two is all that’s needed. What’s wrong with that?

    It is not a question of either using filters or focusing on education. We need both. Ofcom data published last October showed that 37% of 3-4 year olds are going online. After the Christmas splurge on new, low-cost internet enabled tablets my guess is we’ll be nearer 50% and moving upwards.

    How do you “educate” 3-4 year olds? Filters help parents keep some of the worst stuff from their children’s screens. They do not replace parents. And as for “lulling parents into a false sense of security”, we’ve lived with a generation of “unlulled” parents and that hasn’t worked out too well.

    This is an experiment to see if we can do things differently and better.Or do we simply start finger-wagging and tell parents they must always sit with their child when they go online? That is not going to happen.

    No software is perfect. Filters are no exception to that rule. Stupid decisions which result in web sites being wrongly classified by the filters can be easily and quickly corrected.

    This is not Cameron-imposed censorship. Nothing that is currently on the internet will disappear. It’s all still there. Moreover the Labour Party backs the initiative, as do several civil society organizations. I repeat, this is an experiment to see if filters can help busy parents in the digital age. We should give it a chance and not be fooled by Tim Farron’s internal LibDem party-politicking.

  3. redgrouper

    If a site is blocked to you then it might as well not be on the Internet as you will not be able to see it. The providers are not making it easier for people to use the filters. They are forcing them to make a decision to turn them off if they don’t want them as they are pre- ticked. Many people will be afraid to turn off the filters in case they are identified as being a bad parent or someone who wants to look at socially disapproved of material when in fact they may just want to get unfiltered Internet access. The technology is prone to abuse to selectively filter certain sites for commercial gain or political manipulation. The filters are designed by a Chinese company with strong ties to the Chinese Government and who have been under investigation for possible involvement in spying. There is no legal remedy for sites unfairly filtered out and no list of what sites are filtered and why.
    The policy is paving the way for compulsory censorship. How long to you you think the unticking option will last?

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