LONDON—Late last month Claire Perry, a conservative member of the British Parliament, called for a mandatory opt-in filtering mechanism for internet service providers in the United Kingdom. On Sunday, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey echoed her call and moved it a step closer to fruition by calling for a meeting with the nation’s internet service providers (ISPs).
The plan, similar to that being considered by the Australians, would force individuals to notify their ISP in the event that they want adult websites to be made available for access in their homes. That would mean that the government would then have a list of all homes requesting such access, and it is that intrusion into the private affairs of people that has so many people concerned. The government, of course, is saying that the measure is intended solely to protect children and not to serve as a tool of censorship.
"We are not coming at this from an anti-porn perspective,” Perry told the Sunday Times. “We just want to make sure our children aren’t stumbling across things we don’t want them to see."
"This is a very serious matter,” Vaizey added, in the same article. “I think it is very important that it's the ISPs that come up with solutions to protect children. I'm hoping they will get their acts together so that we don't have to legislate, but we are keeping an eye on the situation and we will have a new communications bill in the next couple of years."
In a session of Parliament during which Perry announced her intention to seek the opt-in provision, she went to great pains to describe the threat to the U.K.’s children as dire, painting the situation in terms of a public health hazard.
According to the BBC, Miranda Suit, a co-chair of Safer Media, made a similar appeal this weekend, telling the network that porn on the internet is "qualitatively and quantitatively" different from any that has gone before.
Citing a report by the socially conservative Washington, D.C.-based Witherspoon Institute, which used a compilation of scientifically suspect studies to conclude that porn was damaging the country’s youth, Safer Media came out in support of the U.K. opt-in plan.
"What we are talking about is censorship to protect our children," she said.
The fact that the threat is being described as so utterly dire and yet the government is threatening to impose legislative measures “in the next couple of years” if ISPs do not act quickly may seem inconsistent on its face. But the government is no doubt aware of the years it has taken the Australian government to roll out its own version of ISP-level porn blocking, which was suspended for yet another year in May while the so-called secret blacklist of banned websites is reviewed.
IT experts in both countries have also stated that the plans are inherently unworkable, and could lead not only to a slippery slope of increased censorship but also a false expectation that such filtering will even be effective in the least.
"Unfortunately, it's technically not possible to completely block this stuff," Trefor Davies, chief technology officer at ISP Timico, told the BBC, citing the sheer volume of pornographic material online and the number of ways that people access it, via the web, file-sharing networks, news groups, discussion boards and other distribution platforms.
"You end up with a system that's either hugely expensive and a losing battle because there are millions of these sites, or it's just not effective. The cost of putting these systems in place outweighs the benefits, to my mind,” he said, adding, “If we take this step it will not take very long to end up with an internet that's a walled garden of sites the government is happy for you to see.”
The country’s trade group for ISPs, the Internet Service Provider Association (ISPA), has also reacted negatively to the proposed plan, saying such controls “should be managed by parents and carers with the tools ISPs provide, rather than being imposed top-down.”
The latest call for ISP-level filtering may now also raise some concern within ICANN, and especially within the member ranks of its Government Advisory Committee (GAC), which sent a letter to ICANN Board Chair Peter Dengate Thrush in August warning of the consequences of approving controversial TLDs—including ones in the new round of gTLDs as well as the pending Dot-XXX sTLD—which could lead to a fragmented and less stable DNS.
“The GAC believes that procedures to identify strings that could raise national, cultural, geographic, religious and/or linguistic sensitivities or objections are warranted so as to mitigate the risks fragmenting the DNS that could result from the introduction of controversial stings,” wrote GAC Chair Heather Dryden.