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British plans to filter the Internet : Let’s make our Internet prettier

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Prime Minister David Cameron delivering his speech about making the internet safer for children and cracking down on online pornography on July 22, 2013 Bild: picture alliance / empics

The British Prime Minister would like to filter pornography out of the Internet. Is it just a coincidence, that the proposed technical infrastructure is inviting misuse?

          The battle England’s Prime Minister is currently fighting is menacingly called the „War on Porn“. Internet providers in Great Britain are compelled to install automatic filters by the end of the year that block access to pornographic sites on the Internet for their users. Those who still wish to see them must explicitly register with their Internet provider in advance.

          At the same time and completely independent of whether or not one has pornographic content enabled or not, the search machines are forced to install word filters in order to screen out naughty words. Cameron justifies both measures with a moral duty of the internet providers, but he is also seeking legal measures.

          England is in good company

          The British pornography industry is most likely not amused. They turn over three billion pounds a year. One doesn’t speak about the nasty corners of the Internet, everybody just knows that an abundant supply of pornographic content can be obtained on the net. But public support for free access won’t achieve political score points. So the public resistance is not that large, while a technical infrastructure is being built that has a large capacity for misuse.

          England is in good company with the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia. There, too, a blanket filter infrastructure is used in order to prohibit access to politically and morally undesirable pages on the Internet. Technically speaking, the British Internet filtering system is an extenstion of currently available technology that was developed for stopping access to pictures and films that show child abuse.

          A Precedent Case for the Legality of Censorship

          in Germany there have been similar endeavours – Ursula von der Leyen thought during the last election campaign that setting up stop signs on the internet was a good idea. The ensuing uproar in the Internet – the campaign was christened „Zensursula“ – was not comprehendable for many people, especially from the conservative side of the political spectrum. What was so bad about filters to stop access to illegal and morally despicable content, they asked.

          The argument, that a censorship system that is installed awakens desires to use the technology for other purposes, was deemed far-fetched. But with the extended version of the Internet censorship installation in Great Britian, it has been firmly established that this is indeed the case. We need to be perfectly clear about this: The technical facilities for censoring the Internet traffic of an entire country are available – and not only in dictatorships. The „Tempora“ system that is run by the British secret service GCHQ stores the entire Internet traffic for several days. Compared to that, just filtering out a few web addresses is child’s play. The filter will, of course, be easy to circumvent in the beginning. But once a precedent has been set for the legality of such filters, the demands for improving the technology will not be far behind – including usage of intelligence-agency technology.

          The Infamous British Prudishness

          But the decisive questions are always: Who will configure the filter? Wo decides the blocking criteria? In connection with the British plans, the questions can be more specific: What is the definition of pornography, translated into an algorithm? And how will they deal with the heavily used international platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, Vine, or any picture searching service that of course has enormous amounts of pornographic content? Is it possible to avoid the collatoral damage of excessive filtering and blocking?

          Cameron’s government, which is ruling together with the Liberals, shows herself – in questions other than surveillance – as the guardian of morals, law and order in the Internet. With pithy slogans and drastic examples they try to create the impression that „someone is finally doing something“. Not only are the Internet providers required to comb their data traffic for unwelcome web sites, the search machines are to redirect „bad words“ to special warning pages instead of displaying search results.

          The government hopes that the infamous British prudishness (“no sex please, we’re British“) can be used to set up a system that gives her the control over what can be read and written on the island. That fears of censorship are not unfounded particularly in Great Britain is demonstrated by the „DA-notices“ that force editors-in-chief to not cover topics and issues in their papers that supposedly endanger national security. For example, reporting on the British aspect of the Snowden revelations has been „spiked“, with apparent success. The step from the DA-notices to additional, politically motivated updates on the filter lists, is very small indeed.

          In what sort of an Internet do we want to live?

          The British example demonstrates a basic problem of the current discussion about Internet regulation: The governments are not guarantees for freedom of information and publication and most certainly not for privacy of the citizens. Whenever they can get her hands on the Interent, we see results that make the data hoarders at Google, Facebook & Co look like freedom fighters. Which we know, not just since the Snowden disclosures, they most definetely are not.

          It would be extremely short-sighted to restrain onself to the choice between paternalistic states and profit-oriented, opportunistic Internet companies, when the question is about what kind of an Internet it is that we envision for the future. None of the two sides has the freedom of action, information or communication of the users as a top priority. Neither governments nor internet companies are trustworthy entities that should be able to determine what we can read, see, or write in the Internet. Pseudodemocratic legitimization of this decline into old patterns of thought and action should not delude us.

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