Unless you have been living under the proverbial rock, you will have heard and probably read plenty about the UK government's grandstanding proposals to make pornography opt-in. I won't waste your time by going through the many reasons why that is a foolish idea and won't achieve the things the government says it will. Instead I'd like to concentrate on some disturbing hints about where this could be going, and why we need to start fighting any such plans now.
The Open Rights Group has been talking to ISPs about what the new plan will be like in practice. Here's what they found:
The essential detail is that they will assume you want filters enabled across a wide range of content, and unless you un-tick the option, network filters will be enabled. As we've said repeatedly, it's not just about hardcore pornography.
There follows a list of possible subject areas that would be blocked by default unless you opted in:
violent material extremist and terrorist related content
anorexia and eating disorder websites
suicide related websites
web blocking circumvention tools
Now, it's important to emphasise that these are not set in stone – yet; but they do raise the possibility that the default option will cause huge swathes of the Internet to be invisible for many people, who won't even know what they are not seeing (obviously). And note, too, that we are talking about millions of perfectly legal sites that will be affected, not to mention ecommerce ones (I wonder how well that is going to go down with online retailers.)
The other central issue is how easy it would be to extend the categories at any time – to include "undesirable political" sites, for example. That's really the key danger of censorship: once it's in place, it can be extended very easily.
To which people would doubtless answer – indeed have already answered - well, just opt in to the material you want: what's the problem? Well, the problem was pointed out succinctly by Mikko Hypponen on Twitter. His tweet shows a mock-up of an option box for accessing extremist and terrorist related content, with the minor addition at the end:
(Your choice might be used against you in a court of law)
That encapsulates brilliantly the real problem with opt-in: it requires you to make a non-secret declaration that you want to access a certain class of material, some of which might be socially unacceptable, to say the least. The first time this fact is used in court – divorce cases seem an area where it could be relevant – most people will naturally start to leave certain "dodgy" categories of sites blocked in case it reflects badly on them.
In other words, the opt-in scheme threatens to move us beyond creeping censorship – bad enough in itself – to something far worse, because not so visible: creeping self-censorship. That is truly the Chinese model, where online users know that there are certain lines that cannot be crossed, and who therefore never write or discuss certain forbidden topics because they have interiorised the government's restrictions.
So, the question has to be: is this really the society we want to create here in the UK – a bunch of cowering people constantly worried about how their online choices might be used against them one day, and changing their actions drastically as a result? Maybe for some politicians (no names, no packdrill) it is, but I seriously doubt most of us are happy with that vision. In which case, we need to fight this idiotic and dangerous opt-in scheme now, regardless of what we think about porn and its online availability.