Frank Fisher: Freedom of speech on the internet should be protected

Frank Fisher: Freedom of speech on the internet should be protected

Out of context, it would be easy to dismiss culture secretary Andy Burnham’s attack on the ‘dangerous’ internet as just another junior minister grabbing at headlines in a traditionally dead news period. However, set alongside Labour’s existing and proposed limits on free speech online, it signals potentially worrying extensions to these restrictions and, perhaps more significantly, a disturbing attitude that sees censorship as entirely natural and necessary. Burnham talks of ‘harmful’ content – content, harmful? How? Amid all his talk of websites imposing age ratings he also plainly states that ‘There is content that should just not be available to be viewed’.

Not by kids you’ll note, just a big flat no! This isn’t a guy in the pub talking, this is a government minister who says he knows what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to read and see. Well sorry, Andy, while we might discuss the possibility of you deciding that for children, you certainly don’t get to decide that for me. The temptation is simply to brush the arrogance away with an angry wave, and figure nothing will come of it. That would be dangerous.

As we see in Australia, just because a policy is insane, futile, counter-productive and hugely unpopular doesn’t mean it won’t end up being implemented. When Burnham talked of cooperation across the English-speaking world, the Telegraph was a bit lax in failing to raise Australia’s current filtering madness as a discussion point. Nor was Burnham tackled on Labour’s highly controversial criminalisation of ‘extreme pornography’. The anger here and in Australia really should prime the media to question politicians when they suggest censorship is uncontroversial, or that simply passing a law stops it from being ‘censorship’ and turns the gag into something more tolerable. Likewise, when Burnham whines that he can’t let his children access the internet unsupervised, the proper response should be ‘so what?’ Either supervise them, install your own filtering software, or let them do as they wish. I limit my children’s access to a white-list I drew up and maintain myself, and it costs nowt. Your own parental failings are not a justification for censoring us, Andy.

Beyond the issue of censorship, the practical problems for an effective system are immense. As an example, is it feasible that every website in the world will adopt a compatible age rating system? Of course not – so any possible filter would work on a white-list basis: approved sites would be passed back to surfers, unrated sites would simply be blocked. Blam, there goes 99% of the web. But let’s assume a slightly brighter system; that in addition to a white-list, internet service providers use smart filtering for unrated sites – as some organisations do today – doing a quick text search to see if banned topics or terms pop up.

Well, how smart is smart? When I first wrote about filtering software more than a decade ago one amusing hiccup present in a couple of commercial programs was a block imposed on scientific sites offering tips on ‘naked eye’ astronomical observations. I talked to a secondary school science teacher earlier this year and his filtered network still blocks him from picking up sites like that. Some progress, eh? In fact, the county-wide filtering his school works through gives access to just 11 white-listed domains. Eleven from a hundred million. I’m sure a national system might push that total. Who knows, the ‘good’ internet might total maybe 3 or 4% of the whole?

Burnham’s supporters will say that compulsion for adults is not an issue – that simply isn’t true. I refer them back to his ‘There is content that should just not be available’ comment. The only solution that will deliver the ‘safe’ web for kids is a national white-list adopted by all ISPs. Even a looser system relying on a white-list for under-18s plus the current Cleanfeed model for over-18s will require some kind of authenticated adult login – finally a use for Burnham’s beloved ID cards, eh?

Don’t think that’s far-fetched either – an authenticated login for all internet users was mooted in the European Parliament 10 years ago, and keeps popping back. Similarly in the US influential thinktanks are pushing the idea of a ‘hardened’ internet, secured by, among other things, ‘in-person’ identification at login. When Obama takes office he’ll find this report on his desk. Fancy swiping your ID card past a government-mandated RFID reader to get online?

I’m hoping not, although it’s astonishing how many people seem to want these kinds of controls. The usual cries of ‘paranoia’ will greet this – they’re dwindling though. We now know our internet access is censored using the IWF/Cleanfeed solution – however ineffectual that may be. We also know our government sees free speech online as dangerous – it’s told us so, and promises a new ‘anti-defamation’ consultation paper in the new year to deal with unruly blogs. And we know that certain politically difficult content – and that what’s the beheadings are, Andy, like it or not – is destined for blocking. Finally, we know the supine mainstream media will accept the government line unless forced to challenge it by weight of numbers. And we can also guess that they see the continuing rise of user-generated content as a threat to their own position – and they’re right to think that.

Burnham is no fool – some say Labour simply doesn’t understand the internet, but no, it understand aspects of it only too well. As he says, ‘If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that governments couldn’t reach’. Well maybe not those who created it, but certainly those who came soon after. And that really bothers you, doesn’t it, Andy? Tough.

2009 will be the year of the War on t’Internet, folks. Pick a side, and stand by your mouse.

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