Monday, 22 July 2013

Letter to Tony Baldry MP on internet filtering

    David Cameron has picked up the torch of savior of the nation from internet porn. I think that this, like so many other pronouncements from politicians on the subject of the internet, is largely a piece of think-of-the-children soundbite politics based on little or no knowledge of the subject.
    Because I think there is a real risk of this escalating into an unacceptable level of interference in the workings of the internet I penned the following letter (slightly edited to remove a personal reference) this morning to my MP, Tony Baldry. It won't change anything on its own but since MPs judge the strength of feeling on an issue by the size of their postbag it might have some effect.

Dear Tony,
   I'm mailing you today to express my professional concern as a constituent about the Prime Minister's proposals recently on internet pornography. I feel they owe more to soundbite politics and the readers of the Daily Mail than they do to practicality and they risk placing a burden on the UK internet industry at a time of economic turmoil.
    I'm a search engine and web language specialist by trade. I have worked in the past for Google and in our local web and search engine marketing industry and my current job is with a large publishing house. I make huge web sites of scholarly content and ensure that the search engines see them in the best light.
    I am concerned because I feel that the Prime minister is indulging in soundbite politics without first ensuring that what he is proposing is either practical or not already in place. He's made several points as I understand it: filtering of search terms, internet filtering software, and banning extreme porn including rape scenes. I'll address each one from a professional perspective.
    The proposal with respect to filtering search terms is that the search engines block offensive terms. So a search for porn might give the user a warning page and no results. I feel that this is a noble intent, but ultimately doomed. As a lexicographer will tell you language does not obligingly stay in one place. The porn consumers and their industry will move their vocabulary faster than those blocking terms can react, and we risk a situation similar to that of the "legal highs" industry in which new drug chemicals have to be individually identified and banned at a snail's pace. Something tells me that the Government will not expect to bear the cost of this process, so the internet industry will face yet another unnecessary burden following in the footsteps of confusion over accessibility requirements and the European cookie law.
    I feel that the Prime Minister can not have set up a personal Internet connection in recent years. If he had, he'd know that they already come with filtering software. As part of my job I need to turn mine off from time to time, so I'm fully aware of their existence. It is possible that there is not a legal requirement for them to be turned on, but by my experience internet providers turn them on by default anyway.
    The Government has already enacted a ban on extreme porn, and child porn has been illegal for decades. The online trade in child porn material left the web for other forms of internet traffic in the 1990s and if it is traded online it is not done so in a form that can be blocked by filtering software or search engines. Paedophiles already have a huge amount of law enforcement effort directed at them. Extreme porn may be more visible - It's hardly a subject in which I'm an expert - but I seem to remember that the Government has made something of a fool of itself when it has tried to prosecute people for its possession.
    Of course the illegal end of the porn industry must be dealt with. And it makes sense to ensure that an ISP filtered Internet is available for youngsters. My point is that most of what is needed to do this is already in place, and the Prime Minister risks making a fool of himself  by indulging in one of the Conservative Party's periodic episodes of wrapping itself in morality. You will remember John Major's "Back to Basics" campaign and its somewhat dismal effect on the electorate as a string of scandals engulfed the party, with a series of allegations relating to paedophile politicians and the Wrexham children's home doing the rounds I feel history could repeat itself.
    Now *please* do not reply to this with the default "Think of the children" argument beloved of politicians. It has become such a cliché that there is an entire genre of internet memes devoted to making fun of it. As an industry we are already thinking of the children as I hope I've demonstrated above. Instead I'd urge you and your colleagues to be cautious when making moral pronouncements with respect to the internet, and to seek technical advice before indulging in soundbite politics.
J. W. List