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Why an Internet Watershed is not actually dumb.

A lot of my friends come down heavily on the anti-censorship side of most debates, and if I'm honest so do I.  So it's not surprising that they are deeply troubled by government proposals to limit access to pornography.

The debate is not helped by government's habit of using vague and confusing language that often conflates legal and illegal content and their desire to ban some things outright but merely limit accidental (read: child) access to the rest.  Equally though the debate is not well served by opposition that amounts to little more than "no no no, internet filtering is always ineffective and/or overreaching you stupid, stupid technophobe".
Just because someone is technically unsophisticated in your field, does not mean that they are stupid.  MPs lack the domain knowledge to be able to come up with good specific suggestions on how to achieve their goals but that doesn't  invalidate their core intuition that there is a good solution that's worth pursuing.

Let's think about this Watershed idea for a second shall we?  The UK TV Watershed is a very simple solution to a potentially complicated problem.  Kids love TV, some TV is unsuitable for children, so we'll just schedule all the unsuitable stuff after 9pm and parents that care can send their kids to bed or otherwise restrict access to TV after 9pm.  That's genius.  It doesn't require any technical knowledge to take advantage of it.  I'd bet big money that in households where parents are actually concerned about such things, the vast majority are controlling access to content via the Watershed rather than by setting up the staggeringly tedious parental controls on their satellite/cable box.  And what's the downside for adults?  I have to stay up a little later to watch "mature" material?  Boo Hoo.

Contrast that with the situation on the internet.  I want my kids on there, but I can't look over their shoulder the whole time.  When my eldest was born, hating filters as I do, I assumed my approach would be the then standard "keep the computer in a family room".  Well thank you iPad, but that's just not happening is it?  I am reasonably tech-savvy, but I haven't got around to installing a filter at home.  It's time consuming to install, and my assumption is that it will be intrusive and annoying to the adults in the house. 

When a politician is saying that they want a "Watershed" for the internet, what (I hope) they are actually saying is that they want a low-friction way for parents to get piece of mind that their kids aren't stumbling onto stuff they shouldn't while not limiting adults access to this stuff.   That's a completely laudable goal. Don't mock someone for wanting that, think about ways to make it happen.

And it's not like an Internet Watershed need even be that hard.  Lots of people get their Wireless Router from their ISP.  Lots of Wireless Routers broadcast two networks - the real one and the restricted guest one.  Have your ISP-supplied router ship in such a way that the guest network identifies traffic passing through to be filtered.  Then your parental decision is as simple as which WiFi network you allow your child's devices on.

Don't like that idea?  How about a more literal Watershed analogue?  Instead of an in/out option for a global filter on my connection, have the initial sign up ask you the hours during which you would like the filter enabled.  You could have it on during the hours of 5AM to 9PM, but off otherwise.  Or just on.  Or just off.

I can think of any number of refinements to these proposals, but my basic point is that its not unfeasible and its not unreasonable to want it.  In many ways an Internet Watershed is far more reasonable a request than the actual opt in / opt out to filtering proposal on the table now.   Everyone's connection is both filtered and unfiltered.  There's no list of the opt in perverts, Big Brother is not watching me any more than he already is. 

But yes, lets mock the stupid MP.

Reposted from Medium


Richard said…
Thanks for linking to my post :o)

Good point about ridiculing MPs for their lack of knowledge. I accept sometimes I'm tempted to go a bit far in that direction! The way you've interpreted Rhonda Grant MSP's words is more constructive and charitible than Mr Nicholson's tweet (which I retweeted.) Others have pointed out it's not wise to judge people based on things newspapers print in order to sell copies either. It's true that MPs often lack the domain knowledge necessary to come up with good specific suggestions on every subject, especially on demand because someone has shoved a mic under their noses, and I think you're right that we should cut them some slack for the comments they make in that sort of situation.

I'm not sure I'd agree that a lack of domain knowledge should excuse MPs who pursue risible policies actively. If they're not merely passing comment but seeking to achieve some goal or effect in a particular domain, why wouldn't they first ask their aides to gather evidence, consult experts and report back with briefings and advice? I'd expect them to have done enough research to have a basic grasp of the thing they'd be trying to affect so that they could have a realistic chance achieving the outcome they desire. If MPs don't seem to have based their policies in evidence, I think we're entitled to ask why, and to question what they're trying to achieve. (If they react badly to this questioning, then yes, I think they invite ridicule - or at least satire).

I think a sober analysis of how to achieve either a reduction in child exposure to adult material online, or a reduction in harm suffered by children who are exposed to such material, would point towards different solutions to the ones being proposed by Claire Perry and championed by David Cameron. Device-level filtering, or the kind of home-network filtering you suggested, might form part of that solution (though the problems of false-positives, false-negatives and easy circumvention remain for both). A satisfactory solution might also involve earlier and better sex and relationships education for kids; improving technical literacy for adults; teaching both the skills to communicate with each other about the multifarious bad things that can be stumbled upon online; and giving kids tools and strategies to cope when that happens. None of that is being talked about at all by the Conservatives. In fact Parliament has just voted to exclude personal, social, health and economic education (including SRE) from the national curriculum!

But what are the goals of Claire Perry and David Cameron in pursuing this particular solution in this particular way? I am a bigger cynic than you are, so I am more likely to suspect this has been planned in secret by the Tories without consulting their coalition partners, timed deliberately to occur while Parliament is in recess, and put forward in a way designed to ingratiate the party with some parts of the press and electorate who they hope will view them in a more sympathetic light as a result.

This all smacks of puritanical populism to me, which is a shame since as you point out, mandatory default-on censorship of every household's internet connection will have undesirable side-effects.

As to your suggestion that we should rise to the challenge of figuring out the best way to make technology work for us in this area - I think that's an excellent point and I shall bring it up at the next ORG Sheffield meeting (which is on this topic). It doesn't mean I'm going to stop campaigning against these awful proposals though ;-)