British government’s “opt-in” porn plan looks doomed

December 20, 2010

British government's A senior British government minister has proposed a system by which all pornographic websites would be blocked to British users unless they specifically “opted in.” But the suggestion has met with a combination of political criticism and technical dismissal.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, communications minister Ed Vaizey said he planned to meet major Internet service providers to discuss ways to prevent children being exposed to online porn. His preferred plan is understood to be for ISPs to use the same blocking technology that restricts (illegal) child pornography on all adult material and then only unblock the legal content where a user specifically asks for it.

To horrendously misqoted Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I object to thee? Let me count the ways…”

From a purely political perspective, this is an objectionable concept. Most pornography is legal in the United Kingdom. If something is legal, then websites should have the legal right to display it.

From a philosophical perspective, the United Kingdom is supposedly a liberal democracy. It’s not the responsibility of websites or Internet providers to stop children seeing porn. Sure, companies can do their bit whether as a moral or commercial policy, but responsibility for what children see is that of parents.

From a financial perspective, installing such blocks and maintaining the register of approved users will add extra costs. Internet providers aren’t charities and will pass these costs on to customers. I’m a customer and have no children. Why the hell should I pay extra to stop other people’s kids seeing porn online?

From a legal perspective, the government is effectively asking private companies to maintain a register of people who have specifically requested the ability to view pornography. If that’s not a data protection nightmare in the making, I don’t know what is.

And from a practical perspective, there are countless questions. Does the government plan to block access to all filesharing sites and USENET groups, where porn is freely available? Who decides what counts as pornography? Do social networking sites or image and video sharing sites such as Facebook or YouTube that operate an “upload now, vet later” policy get blocked? Will the filtering system stand up to proxy servers? What if kids find a way to use somebody else’s unsecured but porn-enabled Wi-Fi?

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