The UK wants to filter porn. Here’s how it might hurt the Internet.

Prime Minister David Cameron announced a plan to filter online pornography by default for households in the United Kingdom, saying the initiative is about protecting children and “their innocence."

But before putting this plan into practice, the prime minister might want to take a closer look at other countries' anti-porn crusades. Efforts to filter pornography have led in some places to censorship of political speech, the implementation of widespread online surveillance, public outcries, and Kafka-esque experiences for the owners of sites erroneously caught in the filters.


Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky / AFP/Getty Images)

Take Russia, for example. Last year, President Vladimir Putin signed legislation allowing a nation-wide register of banned Web sites declared harmful to Russia’s youth. This "child protection" legislation opened the door for the online bans on political speech by opponents of the Putin regime. It also allowed for the nationwide roll out of a sophisticated surveillance technology called deep packet inspection that has proven to be a cost effective way for autocratic regimes to track online behavior.

In China, where netizens were already pretty used to a restricted online experience, users and free speech advocates were outraged when the government cracked down on online porn in 2009 by requiring all computers sold in the country to have Internet filtering software pre-installed. Many assumed the program was aimed at invading their privacy as opposed to stopping teens from viewing risque content.

Australian politicians attempted to implement Internet censorship regulation including filters on child porn for years, but legislation was scuttled after years of debate in 2012 once major Internet Service Providers agreed to a voluntary program. Reports indicate that in lieu of a filter formalized by legislation, the government is using a loophole requiring ISPs to prevent their networks from "being used in, or in relation to, the commission of offences against the laws of the Commonwealth or of the States and Territories" to enforce the same kind of control. In one case, a non-profit which gives activist talks and trainings, Melbourne Free University, found itself blocked for nine days, but was unable to get a clear answer on how or why.

Obviously, Britain is a liberal democracy while Russia and China are more autocratic regimes. And the UK's plan plan relies on the voluntary participation of ISPs rather than  legal compulsion. (Although, a letter leaked to the BBC suggests that the ISPs were not all in agreement with the specifics of the proposal.) But before you dismiss the comparison, consider that British intelligence agencies are reportedly considering installing DPI capable “blackboxes” on ISP servers to monitor web traffic.

According to the BBC, Cameron's  plan will have ISPs ask households with existing service if they want to filter adult material by the end of the year, with the “yes” box ticked by default. If the household doesn’t answer the question, the filters will be turned on. New users will be automatically enrolled, although they will be able to ask for the filters to be turned off. Because the largest ISPs in the country have already agreed to the system, the plan will reportedly cover 95 percent of homes.

Most ISPs in the UK already subscribe to a child sex abuse blacklist run by Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a nongovernmental group created in 1996 with the help of ISPs. But even that more limited blacklist filtering model has hit some substantial hiccups. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an IWF block on one Wikipedia page inadvertently resulted in a substantial number of UK Internet users being stopped from joining or editing Wikipedia.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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