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To: Parliament / your MP
Stop government-specified internet filtering and search blacklisting
To my member of parliament,
I am writing to you as I have serious concerns regarding the recent news that the government is planning to introduce a blacklist of banned Internet search terms, and also the introduction of government controlled filtering of web sites at the ISP level.
As you are probably aware, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced new measures to combat online pornography and child abuse. While on the surface some of these measures may appear to be helpful in protecting children, their effectiveness is in serious doubt and they have much wider ramifications for civil liberties in this country.
On July 21st, the Prime Minister called on Internet search engine providers Google, Yahoo, Bing and others to block images of child abuse through the use of blacklisted keywords to stop Internet users accessing illegal images. Any attempt to use such keywords in searches would result in no search results being returned, or a "warning screen" stating that accessing such material would be illegal. Microsoft's Bing search engine and Yahoo! have already been pressured into complying with this in part.
Unfortunately, this approach is likely to fail for a number of reasons, as reported in the press. There is a significant body of evidence from news reports of police investigations that paedophiles do not operate in this way; their activities are illegal and they clearly have a vested interest in staying hidden from the authorities. Rather, a search blacklist will block legitimate access to numerous other sites, including support forums for those who have been abused, as identified by a similar measure in Australia (see http://www.internetblackout.com.au). A blacklist of undesirable terms is of course also what the Chinese government uses in order to control the information available to the public and media.
The Prime Minister went on to announce other measures aimed at restricting access to legal pornography. This included blocking of government-specified sites at the ISP level (customers would have the ability to "opt-out" of this, but it will be automatically imposed otherwise), and increased powers to monitor the peer-to-peer and social media traffic of the public.
Why is this important?
As you may be aware, there are already numerous methods of blocking access to pornography where parents wish to do so. A block at the ISP level takes what is and is not blocked out of the control of parents, with potentially dangerous results. Video chat sites aimed at teenagers and certain social media sites are (as identified by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, CEOP) some of the places paedophiles go to prey on children, but as these are not 'adult' in nature they will most likely not come under the block. Parents being told their internet connection is being filtered for adult content to protect their children will therefore believe their children are 'safe' when they are in fact being left exposed to serious risks. The emphasis should be on educating parents about dangers like these, helping them to set up their own restrictions so their children are protected, and highlighting the fact that no blocking software or filters are a substitute for parental supervision.
Restricting access to information based on blacklists and filtering at the ISP level represents a severe curtailment of civil liberties. Such practices are typically employed by governments wishing to restrict access to information and ideas they find threatening or undesirable (the aforementioned People's Republic of China being a good example).
Prime Minister Cameron took the opportunity to also state that certain 'extreme' fantasy material (involving no illegal acts) would now be made illegal in all of the UK, signalling his intent to restrict access to material that is currently legal. Sure enough, one week later it was revealed that the ISP filtering may cover far more than just pornography; categories of materials that may be blocked include violent material, extremist related content, anorexia and eating disorder websites, suicide related websites, alcohol, smoking, and even web forums and so-called "esoteric material" (see http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-07/27/pornwall).
I would urge you to carefully consider these points when and if these issues are debated in the house. The CEOP previously identified other priorities for protecting children from abuse such as finding ways to monitor hidden and encrypted networks, and greater inter-country law enforcement cooperation. I believe these approaches should be selected in preference to the measures mentioned by the Prime Minister, measures that will ultimately fail to catch the most serious perpetrators and are themselves open to serious abuse.