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Monday, March 2

Web censorship and 'collateral damage'

Attended the Cambridge programme of the Convention on Modern Liberties at the weekend, particularly as an Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) spokesperson was at a forum on internet censorship.

The session was videoed.

Turned out that the IWF woman had little to contribute but heard some interesting stuff from Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, from Birkbeck.

She works with sex offenders and said that there is evidence of harm resulting from viewing extreme material. She also pointed out the obvious - that the existence of the web has facilitated pedophiles in two ways: finding each other and grooming children.

This led her to believe that internet regulation should not be entirely dismissed. But she also pointed to the cost of exagerrating the threat to children.

She slammed the government's approach, saying that we end up with law that achieves nothing largely because of reactions to moral panics created by the press and a lack of consultation. It did not help that because funding is being withdrawn from research into the behaviour of sexual predators, she claimed, 'evidence-based' regulation is made harder. She also said that politicisation of the police had a role, as they are pushing MPs into viewing the worst images to which they predictably react with 'something must be done!'.

There are vested interests and there is official incompetence, she said.

Her answer was to have independent, open regulation, staffed by people who are "fit to do the job". And to not diminish the role of parents.

I contributed at the forum about the role of commercial filters. From when I submitted evidence to the Australian Senate in 1999 to now their role and their development has stayed the same: they are a commercial form of censorship sold to assuage parental and commercial fear. 'You must buy this otherwise you'll be sued', 'buy this or workers will waste time', 'buy our software to protect children'.

Yet as in 1999, there are groups of children who suffer as a result of their implementation.

For example, a 12 year old girl who has been raped may find access to online information blocked: at school, in the library and at home.

LGBT youth continually report this:

Well I tried to do some research today, and my searches for gay rights, lgbt rights, homophobic bullying, and similar were all blocked.

Even websites like Pink News were all blocked. I find this ridiculous, after all how can a student try to find help and support online, or do research, when these sites are blocked.
I have also seen PinkNews blocked by a local council's filter.

Although websites can be unblocked, what are the chances of a teenager struggling with isolation actually asking for this?

Dr Brooks-Gordon, following my contribution, said that one of impacts of the government's kneejerk and badly designed regulation of so-called 'extreme pornography' could be that a teenage transsexual could not see images of sex-change surgery, even with parental supervision.

This sort of un-thought-through 'collateral damage' or 'over-blocking' is one of the reasons why national-level filtering was just blocked in the Australian Senate. A right-wing anti-abortion Senator voted against it because it would mean the blocking of images of aborted fetuses.

In their promotion of filters the IWF describes such blocking of rape or gay youth sites as "an acceptable level of success".

Ofcom fail to mention over blocking in their promotion of filters, although the Byron report to its credit does. Ofcom is proposing a 'Kitemark' scheme for filters. I would certainly like to see this take into account over-aggressive marketing.

The solution I came up with in that 1999 report was a 'whitelist'. This would ensure that no products sold in the UK blocked sites like and most importantly kids using public resources (schools and libraries) would have access to online resources of educational and personal value and not randomly see them blocked.

This is also the solution taken up by the Australian State of New South Wales (NSW), where all filtering is done 'in-house'. And because it is done by a government body, the Department of Education, it is more open to lobbying and how it operates is more accessible to change.

Their attitude is summed up by their chief information officer, Stephen Wilson, facing criticism on blocking of web 2.0 tools:
"We want to make it pleasant and we don't want someone surfing the internet and getting a lot of blocks for the wrong reasons. We want them to be blocked for the right reasons."
The NSW operation isn't perfect - they block Google Docs because it's "in direct competition to MS Office" - but it's a damn sight easier to influence and more accountable than a US-based corporation.


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