This news item was especially newsworthy in the UK, because David Cameron, our Prime Minister, recently announced he wants to block access to websites that contain content that might be unsuitable for children, unless people opt in. He’s told British Internet Service Providers they must implement, by default, family-friendly Web content filters within the next 18 months.
According to The Open Rights Group, the “pre-selected” categories in the filter may include types of content such as alcohol, drugs and tobacco, cults, anorexia and eating disorders, suicide, “esoteric material”, and web forums, as well as other, ehem, physical adult activities that may spring to mind. These are not illegal sites, but sites that have content deemed unsuitable for under 18s.
The case for filtering
The case for filtering has been around the need to safeguard childhood and make sure it was “untainted by the worries and complexities of adulthood.” The prime minister said:
“I am a father of three young children and I take this issue extremely seriously. To me, the fact that so many children have visited the darkest corners of the internet is not just a matter of concern—it is utterly appalling. A silent attack on innocence is underway in our country today and I am determined that we fight it with all we’ve got.”
David Cameron’s position can be summarised as “where there’s a will, there must be a way”—that it’s possible to for ISPs to protect children from content that’s inappropriate to their age:
“You’re the people who take pride in doing what they say can’t be done. You hold hackathons for people to solve impossible Internet conundrums. Well—hold a hackathon for child safety. Set your greatest brains to work on this. You are not separate from our society, you are part of our society, and you must play a responsible role in it.” (source: The Guardian)
The case against
The Guardian has published an article that lists 12 reasons why the filters won’t work, but let me cover a few of the arguments raised by those against the proposed changes here.
1. Families should decide what they censor, not governments or foreign companies such as Huawei
Those against Mr. Cameron’s plans see filtering as censorship, run by unaccountable bodies, doing more harm than good. For example, it’s a Chinese company that currently operates the current “opt-in” family filter for UK ISPs, with no public accountability for its decisions.
Once a government has a tool for making websites disappear from people’s browsers, it may be hard to resist using it.
If we tone down the fear of censorship, opponents claim there’s still a touch of the “would you wish your wife or servants to read this book?“ about the plans—a belief that the nanny state knows what’s best for you.
Instead, the opponents propose an alternative, “active choice” option: a filter with no preset defaults, forcing customers to specify whether they want content filtered or not.
2. Filters don’t work“I think if you tried to Google it in the future, the Prime Minister would stop you from finding it” From London Mayor Boris Johnson’s speech at the unveiling of the giant blue cock in Trafalgar Square.
According to The Open Rights Group, filters are either too draconian or too lax. It claims they will stop people finding advice on sexual health, sexuality, and relationships.
The British Library quickly reversed its decision to censor Hamlet, but would the author of say, The Prince of Denmark (a novel of that sets Hamlet in modern times), find it as easy to reverse a ban on their book?
Parts of Wikipedia have previously been blacklisted in the UK (in that case where it was felt a page contained an illegal image). With the family filter in place, we may well see other pages in Wikipedia disappear from view in UK homes, even though the content is completely legal.
3. They are easy to circumvent
The opponents claim filters won’t stop children seeing adult content and risk giving parents a false sense of security. Indeed, if a child can install or access the TOR browser, they’ll be able to bypass the family filters completely.
What’s this got to do with technical communication?
If the plans are implemented, everyone, including technical communicators, will have to change their perception that Web content is available to all. There may be pages, in Wikipedia and elsewhere, that you can see in the USA, but your colleagues or customers in the UK cannot. We’re also likely to see more cases of overblocking.
If your content involves any topics that might fall under the filter (such as drugs, suicide, depression, esoterica, tobacco, guns, anorexia, and dieting), you may need to careful what you write if you want it to be seen in the UK.
This is a classic British fudge. You might be wondering if the UK has a 1st Amendment right to free speech, particularly as this debate is about perfectly legal content. The UK does not have a constitution, but free speech is currently protected under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The Prime Minister wants the filtering to be implemented voluntarily by the ISPs, but with the threat of legislation and regulation if they don’t.
It may not happen at all (that happens to many proposals in politics), and it may not be as censorious as some fear. In the meantime, it might be sensible to download Macbeth before you visit the UK.
Please share your thoughts below.
Ellis Pratt is director at Cherryleaf, a UK technical writing services company. Ranked the most the influential blogger on technical communication in Europe, Ellis is a specialist in the field of creating clear and simple information users will love.
British Library image: Flickr user photojenni; 4th plinth image: Wikipedia.