Worried about porn? Filtering the Internet is NOT the answer

AndrewCushen

A blog post from Andrew Cushen, Work Programme Director at InternetNZ
25 January 2016

Our Deputy Chief Censor, Jared Mullen, has shared his thoughts about the challenges of restricting access to hardcore, degrading pornography on Office of Film, Video and Literature’s (OFLC) blog site (please note the warning that he provides at the start of the article).

The crux of Mr Mullen’s argument is that we have a classification regime that is intended to restrict access to objectionable content. That classification regime is undermined by unfettered, unsupervised access to the Internet which means that young people are able to evade these restrictions.

I won’t comment on the merits of his argument that degrading online pornography is having a negative impact on our young people (though this, and many other related topics, were covered in our recent discussion event on Sex and the Internet). I’m quite happy to defer to sociologists, psychologists and our Censor’s office in that regard.

Where I am however concerned is where the article goes next; in discussing and promoting widespread, opt-out filtering as a potential solution to this challenge, with reference to the solution deployed in the United Kingdom:

The United Kingdom has gone further than New Zealand and Australia and has responded to the harm caused by pornography, particularly to young people, by suggesting (under threat of tighter regulation) that internet service providers automatically provide adult filters from which families can choose to opt out.

... the UK approach does demonstrate very clearly and definitively that it is possible to tackle web-based porn using technology that has been readily available for over a decade.

The Censor’s office ends the article asking “what do you think”. So, with respect to the OFLC, this is what I think and why I disagree with Mr Mullen.

1. Filters tend to have more holes than nets

Filters don’t have a terribly impressive track record. They risk slowing a user’s Internet connection down across the board; being pretty basic to evade by a tech savvy teen, and can be spotty in terms of their performance even when working well. More worrying though, they risk creating a false sense of security that can actually be far more dangerous to users that are concerned - giving the image of a safe, censored Internet without actually delivering one.

2. We already have a filter 

We’ve allowed one exception to that stance in New Zealand through the implementation of the Digital Child Exploitation Filter maintained by the Department of Internal Affairs. That is a very limited implementation in that it seeks to filter out only that material that is clearly named in our legislation as being unacceptable - child pornography - but even then, it’s been criticised (in particular by ourselves).

What we, and many others, said when the DCEF was proposed was that we worry that once it is in place that scope creep will set in. That is, that once we’ve deployed a solution that others will look to use that solution for other means. We’ve seen big movie studios propose using the filter to block torrent sites; now we’re likely seeing the same thinking here. Slippery slopes!

3. Internet filtering is very, very, very prone to misclassification and overreach

One of the big problems with any form of Internet filter is that the filter list is often secret; after all, you can’t hide something well if you say exactly what you’re hiding. The unfortunate fact of the matter is though that time and time again we see filters being misapplied - restricting access to useful information about sexuality for example, or even blocking some poor dentist’s website like as happened in Australia.

Web filtering is usually secret filtering. Secret filtering is prone to mistakes or the bias of those that maintain the secret filter list. Both of those things damage free expression online in a particularly insidious fashion.

4. Parents and users may already choose their own solutions to filtering

There are literally dozens of solutions to this problem that parents can deploy in their home - I’m not going to list them, as all it takes is a simple search to find a wide array of both paid and free options. Likewise you can choose an ISP that provides content filtering as part of its service.

Both of these are a far more proportionate solution - promote the easily deployed solutions at an individual user level, rather than enforcing restrictions upon everyone. I’d like to invite our Censor’s office to consider promoting these tools first rather than promoting nationwide filtering.

5. It's not the Internet that’s the problem; it's our notions of classification

We’ve covered our views on this in our submission to the Government on the Content Regulation in a Converged World consultation process. Two particularly relevant parts of our submission were:

4.1 We consider that the implications of user generated content, online availability, instant access, ephemeral content (e.g. Periscope or Snapchat), the difficulty of identity and access management at device level and increased use of VPNs and encryption tools make age restrictions on content more and more difficult to implement. In fact, some of our members question whether any hard full-restriction censorship system based on age can work at all anymore.

4.3 One way to still provide information to New Zealanders could be to use the Internet to facilitate information on publications. Online information would give people a reasonable opportunity to make informed choices for themselves and their dependants. One recent example of this was when Slingshot, through GlobalMode, enabled the import of non NZ classified content. Slingshot provided a warning to check age appropriateness of content to its customers and a link to the Internet Movie Database (imdb).

Let’s not risk damaging the Internet with ineffectual overreactions based on moral outrage

The Internet is the most incredible vehicle for communication and sharing of ideas that humanity has ever created. I agree that the Internet has increased the availability of porn - just like it has increased the availability of information of all types. That is the Internet’s greatest strength and potential - the easy, ubiquitous sharing of information; even information that some may consider to be morally offensive.

Ideas like mandatory filtering risk damaging the Internet as a fabulous resource for connection, communication and creativity. That’s too much of a risk when you consider the points I make above.

This blog post is not a defence of porn. We should leave that challenge in the hands of individuals, rather than seek ineffectual and draconian nationwide solutions, and leave our Internet functioning the way it should.