Internet Who censors what?

15 November 2008

It has become rather typical of this Labour government in the UK to compile lists and use them to ‘name and shame’ individuals and organizations for their shortcomings and failures. It is also a trait of the Blair-Brown years that the government believes that it is the best placed to protect the UK citizens. Both developments have provoked some unease (well, at least in me).

On the point that children should be protected from harmful materials, there would be little dissent. Furthermore, attempts to reduce the number of violent and offensive content are welcome. However, there are tricky questions: definition of what should be classified as ‘harmful’ material (and by whom) and who filters such undesirable content.

It remains unclear where the line should be drawn between the inoffensive and the offensive, and who becomes the censor. There are going to be difficult decisions: someone’s art is someone else’s pornography, someone’s legitimate criticism of religion is someone else’s incitement to religious hatred, etc. We are talking about the internet and that means cross-jurisdictional differences of opinion. What might be OK elsewhere would not be over here. So who in the UK will be the judge / censor? A quango? A committee? An internet czar?

Another question is: who should filter the materials? The plan calls for naming and shaming ISPs, and I’m a little uncertain as to how exactly the ISPs block or take down web pages, since they are not putting the content on websites. There may be one offending video clip or page but that should not lead other pages to be blocked from the same site. I suppose there will be a British version of the Great Firewall.

A strange and unintended consequence may ensue when an ISP becomes popular because it is named and shamed, and treats it as a badge of honour for not bowing to censorship. Internet should not be an amoral sphere where everything and anything goes, but then I’m not entirely sure if the governmental intervention is the best way.