UK Filters And The Slippery Slope Of Mass Censorship

from the slip-slip-sliding-your-freedoms-away dept

We’ve covered the ridiculousness of the UK’s “voluntary” web filters. UK officials have been pushing such things for years and finally pushed them through by focusing on stopping “pornography” (for the children, of course). While it quickly came out that the filters were blocking tons of legitimate content (as filters always do), the UK government quickly moved to talk about ways to expand what the filters covered.

The pattern is not hard to recognize, because it happens over and over again. Government officials find some absolute horror — the kind of thing that no one will stand up for — to push for some form of censorship. Few fight back because no one wants to be seen as standing up for something absolutely horrific online, or be seen as being against “family values.” But, then, once the filters are in place, it becomes so easy both to ignore the fact that the filters don’t work (and censor lots of legitimate content) and to constantly expand and expand and expand them. And people will have much less of a leg to stand on, because they didn’t fight back at the beginning.

That appears to be happening at an astonishingly fast pace in the UK. Index On Censorship has a fantastic article, discussing how a UK government official has already admitted to plans to expand the filter to “unsavoury” content rather than just “illegal.”


James Brokenshire was giving an interview to the Financial Times last month about his role in the government’s online counter-extremism programme. Ministers are trying to figure out how to block content that’s illegal in the UK but hosted overseas. For a while the interview stayed on course. There was “more work to do” negotiating with internet service providers (ISPs), he said. And then, quite suddenly, he let the cat out the bag. The internet firms would have to deal with “material that may not be illegal but certainly is unsavoury”, he said.

And there it was. The sneaking suspicion of free thinkers was confirmed. The government was no longer restricting itself to censoring web content which was illegal. It was going to start censoring content which it simply didn’t like.

It goes on, in fairly great detail, to describe just how quickly the UK is sliding away down that slippery slope of censorship. It highlights how these filters were kicked off as an “anti-porn” effort, where the details were left intentionally vague.


But David Cameron positioned himself differently, by starting up an anti-porn crusade. It was an extremely effective manouvre. ISPs now suddenly faced the prospect of being made to look like apologists for the sexualisation of childhood.

Or at least, that’s how it was sold. By the time Cameron had done a couple of breakfast shows, the precise subject of discussion was becoming difficult to establish. Was this about child abuse content? Or rape porn? Or ‘normal’ porn? It was increasingly hard to tell.

And, of course, the fact that the filters go too far, is never seen as a serious problem.


The filters went well beyond what Cameron had been talking about. Suddenly, sexual health sites had been blocked, as had domestic violence support sites, gay and lesbian sites, eating disorder sites, alcohol and smoking sites, ‘web forums’ and, most baffling of all, ‘esoteric material’. Childline, Refuge, Stonewall and the Samaritans were blocked, as was the site of Claire Perry, the Tory MP who led the call for the opt-in filtering. The software was unable to distinguish between her description of what children should be protected from and the things themselves.

At the same time, the filtering software was failing to get at the sites it was supposed to be targeting. Under-blocking was at somewhere between 5% and 35%.

Children who were supposed to be protected from pornography were now being denied advice about sexual health. People trying to escape abuse were prevented from accessing websites which could offer support.

And something else curious was happening too: A reactionary view of human sexuality was taking over. Websites which dealt with breast feeding or fine art were being blocked. The male eye was winning: impressing the sense that the only function for the naked female body was sexual.

But, of course, no one in the UK government seems to care. In fact, they’re looking to expand the program. Because it was never about actually stopping porn. It was always about having a tool for mass censorship.


The list was supposed to be a collection of child abuse sites, which were automatically blocked via a system called Cleanfeed. But soon, criminally obscene material was added to it – a famously difficult benchmark to demonstrate in law. Then, in 2011, the Motion Picture Association started court proceedings to add a site indexing downloads of copyrighted material.

There are no safeguards to stop the list being extended to include other types of sites.

This is not an ideal system. For a start, it involves blocking material which has not been found illegal in a court of law. The Crown Prosecution Service is tasked with saying whether a site reaches the criminal threshold. This is like coming to a ruling before the start of a trial. The CPS is not an arbiter of whether something is illegal. It is an arbiter, and not always a very good one, of whether there is a realistic chance of conviction.

As the IWF admits on its website, it is looking for potentially criminal activity – content can only be confirmed to be criminal by a court of law. This is the hinterland of legality, the grey area where momentum and secrecy count for more than a judge’s ruling.

There may have been court supervision in putting in place the blocking process itself but it is not present for individual cases. Record companies are requesting sites be taken down and it is happening. The sites are only being notified afterwards, are only able to make representations afterwards. The traditional course of justice has been turned on its head.

And it just keeps going on and on. As the report notes, “the possibilities for mission creep are extensive.” You don’t say. They also note that technologically clueless politicians love this because they can claim they’re solving a hard problem when they’re really doing no such thing (and really are just creating other problems at the same time):


MPs like filtering software because it seems like a simple solution to a complex problem. It is simple. So simple it does not exist.

Of course, if you recognize that the continued expansion of such filters was likely the plan from the beginning, then everything is going according to plan. The fact that it doesn’t solve any problems the public are dealing with is meaningless. It solves a problem that the politicians are dealing with: how to be able to say they’ve “done something” to “protect the children” while at the same time building up the tools and powers of the government to stifle any speech they don’t like. To those folks, the system is working perfectly.

Filed Under: , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “UK Filters And The Slippery Slope Of Mass Censorship”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
53 Comments
PaulTsays:

Re:

“The filter I use on my open Wifi hotspot has the website for the movie Rio 2, blocked as porn, even then Rio 2 is a family film, and defniitely not porn.”

I thought I’d do a little bit of research, and it looks quite simple, if depressingly predictable.

The URL of the official Rio 2 website is http://www.riomovies.com. The certainly sounds like something that could have been something else in the past. Lo and behold, if I use the Wayback Machine at archive.org, there’s snapshots of that domain back in 2005 that do indeed indicate that it hosted porn. A whois search suggests that the site has only been owned by Fox since 2013, and there’s a gap in the archive.org results between 2006 and 2013.

In short, whatever filter you use has not updated the information for this site for some time (at least a year, inif not since 2006), and Fox is being punished because someone with no relationship to themselves used the site for porn – presumably long before they even conceived of the first Rio movie, let alone owned the domain name. You’re presumably just being blocked because of the nature of many of these blacklists – once you end up on them, it’s difficult to get removed, and they’re rarely checked to see if something is no longer deserving of the block.

This is actually the sort of block that sadly needs to take place. If MPAA members are supporting these blocks (and they are), it’s only fitting that they lose traffic and revenue because of them.

OldGeezersays:

Don’t you still just have the option of opting out of the filtering? Parents could still have the option of installing their choice of filtering software and if it blocks something they want their children to see the could unblock it. Why doesn’t the UK just offer free downloads of filtering programs for anyone that wants it and just leave everyone else alone?

Anonymoussays:

Re:

Because the parents shouting loudest for filters are clueless about technology, and unwilling to learn about it so that they can protect their kids. It is much easier to make complain loudly at every opportunity, than spend an hour or two learning how to set up a network and filter so that you can protect your kids.

andysays:

Re: Re:

Actually the parents have a point there is a lot of porn out there that is disgusting and needs to be removed, but there are no easy tools to do so without also blocking sites they use frequently so it is a choice of losing access to sites you hold dear and those that you most definitely want to block.

The government was trusted to do so, but they obviously have let their power go to their heads and overused it. This makes the situation worse in many ways , especially the fact that people are creating ways to overcome the blocks with one click or one setting in a browser. Making the whole thing useless.

If they are not careful the governments will create an environment where they are seen as the problem by the majority and they are blocked from accessing the sites that others visit on a regular basis, they will be on an internet that nobody really uses, while everyone else is using a decentralized internet that cannot really be blocked in any way.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re:

Actually the parents have a point there is a lot of porn out there that is disgusting and needs to be removed, but there are no easy tools to do so without also blocking sites they use frequently so it is a choice of losing access to sites you hold dear and those that you most definitely want to block.

DansGuardian is available for free, and is one option the parents could use. By using it they can control what is and is not filtered themselves.

PaulTsays:

Re: Re: Re:

“Actually the parents have a point there is a lot of porn out there that is disgusting”

Correct, but:

“needs to be removed”

Nope, sorry. Life does not get to be controlled according to what some random parent thinks is good for their kids. Whether they like it or not, millions of adults wish to access content, information and services that are not in any way suitable for children. Some of them might even offend other adults. So what?

Using the “for the children” excuse when going after things like child porn is at least understandable (although any intelligent person knew that this particular method is unworkable). But if it’s not illegal, adults have the right to access any content they wish whether it’s suitable for parents or not. They have hundreds of ways to filter things for their children, from not allowing unsupervised access to installing the many filters already available for them to use.

They have the right to censor their own homes, not anyone else’s.

Analytical mindsays:

Human politicans

Anyone else considers at least somewhat offensive that some control- and powerhungry persons want to decide for You what You can read, listen or feel? What Information You can access is one of most terrifying one. And those humans want to control what You believe as a Truth, is as usual ‘Offical Truth’
It’s not only BBC which does it. (GB version)

Anonymoussays:

I’m guessing UK censorship filters block websites at the DNS level. Hopefully this will help accelerate development of Decentralized Domain Name Systems (DDNS).

Then we just need a search engine to index DDNS URLs, so we can find DDNS registered websites. The only thing left to do after that, is watch Cameron run around like his hair is on fire.

Anonymoussays:

Re:

A decentralized DNS system does not help when DHCP points you at the DNS server of your ISP. Like always making Internet technology very simple to use puts control of your use in other peoples hands.
Has anybody being affected by a filter set their DNS to Google or OpenDNS to see if that defeats it?

Anonymous Cowherdsays:

Re: Re:

DHCP only matters if your computer is configured to care.

Of course the whole system relies on a clueless public that doesn’t know how to configure a network in the first place, so the “target audience” probably doesn’t even know what those acronyms mean much less what to do with them. But their kids probably do. ­čśë

Anonymoussays:

I’ll change the last word in this block-quote:

The pattern is not hard to recognize, because it happens over and over again. Government officials find some absolute horror — the kind of thing that no one will stand up for — to push for some form of
monitoring.

Oops, isn’t this how PATRIOT came about? Nice kneejerk reaction there, Congress.

Anonymoussays:

this whole censorship issue was put in place at the behest of the entertainment industries, more than anything else. the ‘for the children’ was the pathetic excuse used, because it is a subject that 99% of people abhor! once tyhe censorship started, with very little in the way of complaints (and what there were was completely ignored anyway!) the real purpose of stopping web sites just because the entertainment industries dont like them then began. once this has been done, the government will sit back and like in the USA, those politicians that want one will be given a job by the industries. the last thing that will become filtered are the political web sites. this government is so shit scared of allowing any other political party to take over, it will be banning opposition web sites. then add in the stupid statements Cameron has recently made about religion and we have another iron in the fire! this will not end good, just wait and see!!
i hope there are some groups in the UK that bring actions against the government and win. once it gets established, with no court rulings being needed, you can bet your ass it will be spread to a lot more countries. the whole aim being total surveillance by a world government!

OldGeezersays:

Re: The best internet filter I've ever heard of.

That is what my brother in law did with his two girls. He put the computer where it could bee seen from both the kitchen and living room. They also had a password on the modem so they could only connect while the parents were home. May seem a little fanatical but there is some really sick shit out there and just hardcore porn.`

Pragmaticsays:

Re: Re: The best internet filter I've ever heard of.

No, that seems entirely reasonable.

Do a search for net nanny programs; there are tons of them and many are free. I’m all for voluntary censorship and site-blocking in the home. I can’t stand ad farms and like having the ability to block them from my personal search results.

Claire Randsays:

the point of course...

was never to block pron, that was a side effect, blocking pictures and video takes effort. The point as has been painfully obvious for ages (the last gov tried as well) is to monitor and block text which is easier – say someone happened to have a lot of documents that a government didn’t want you to see for example.

Thats the target, throwing a bone to the daily heil is a side effect.

Claire Perry’s website getting blocked was wonderful to see, watching toys leaving the pram with accursations of her site being ‘hacked’. Guido Fawkes has a thread or two on his blog about it (she accused the site owner of hacking her because he had a screen shot)

PaulTsays:

Re:

“this article forgets to say its opt in”

Because it’s not, at least not for the actual people affected?

“(or out)”

Oh, OK, so you’re just desperate to attack this site for something, but even you can’t bring yourself to support the actions taken by the UK government in your obsessive stream of replies so you have to make stuff up instead. Good job.

The Geek Syndrome

This article illustrates what might be called the Geek Syndrome. If you’ve watched the movie War Games, the scene where the chief character is getting advice at a computer center on the UW campus illustrates the Geek Syndrome when the fat guy there tells off the nerdy guy for not understanding people.

What is the Geek Syndrome? It’s a weakened ability to enter into the minds of other people, particularly people different from themselves, that seems to be common among those who find purely technical subjects appealing. The result is not only less sympathy, empathy and the like, but often no grasp of those inabilities. They’re like blind people who don’t realize they’re blind.

It seems linked to a fascination with games, particularly computer games. Why? Probably because a game follows fixed rules that can be mechanically learned. A computer games has none of the complexities of dealing with human beings with their various moods. It requires no sensing or intuition.

There’s no question that government efforts to control even areas such as child porn or children accessing what’s misnamed ‘adult’ content often goes astray or looks ridiculous. But although those with the Geek Syndrome often use those arguments, that’s not really what drives them. What drives them is their inability to empathize with either small children or their parents. They care about their ‘access,’ in part because simply don’t care those others for who that ‘access’ is harmful.

I once worked with autistic children. The Geek Syndrome is part of a wide range of social inadequacies that includes Aspergers Syndrome and hard-core autism. People who have it should have the good sense and decency to talk with those who don’t and use the latter’s understanding to broaden their understanding. They can learn what doesn’t come naturally to them.

PaulTsays:

Re: The Geek Syndrome

Well, what a giant pile of crap. I, for one, care deeply about what happens to small children and, to a degree, their parents. Which I why I support workable solution to these problems, not things that will never work and cause more problems than they stop.

Your half-assed attempts to pretend that people who disagree with this crap “just don’t understand” is a convenient lie, but like most such things is just a distraction from reality.

In case you disagree – did you miss the part about anti-child abuse charities, domestic violence charities, suicide prevention services, and other vital services being blocked by these filters? Do you really support this? These being removed just because some parents want the government to do the censoring for them is pretty despicable, and not something that makes your argument stick in any way.

Stop trying to dismiss the warnings of people who know what they’re talking about with convenient stereotypes, and lets get real solutions to these problems, OK? Waving away the concerns of the people who know WTF they’re talking about – many of whom are also parents – is the action of a coward and an ignoramus. Don’t be that guy, talk about what’s really happening.

Pragmaticsays:

Re: The Geek Syndrome

@ Michael W. Perry, projecting, much?

Your ad hominem attack fails to engage with the issues of freedom of speech. Well we’re not going to be put off continuing to discuss it by fears that we’re not fitting in.

And the article demonstrates empathy just fine by pointing out the harm being done by over-blocking sites that don’t reinforce hard-right conservative patriarchal attitudes.

There’s no question that government efforts to control even areas such as child porn or children accessing what’s misnamed ‘adult’ content often goes astray or looks ridiculous.

That’s trivialising the real issue of censorship. Is your argument being driven by your inability to empathize with nursing mothers, mothers-to-be, the LGBT community, or children seeking advice on sexual health?

But although those with the Geek Syndrome often use those arguments, that’s not really what drives them. What drives them is their inability to empathize with either small children or their parents. They care about their ‘access,’ in part because simply don’t care those others for who that ‘access’ is harmful.

Many of us are parents, and we’re not obsessed with ensuring ready access to porn and other unsavory material. We’re concerned that the slippery slope to censorship may one day block access to legitimate sites by law, not by accident.

Enjoy authoritarianism until you fall foul of it, buddy.

GEMontsays:

When bad guys make laws, only bad guys get served by law.

“The fact that it doesn’t solve any problems the public are dealing with is meaningless. It solves a problem that the politicians are dealing with: how to be able to say they’ve “done something” to “protect the children” while at the same time building up the tools and powers of the government to stifle any speech they don’t like. To those folks, the system is working perfectly.”

By the Gawds!!! Is it possible??

Could the dream finally be coming to an end??
Are people actually starting to wake up?

If I didn’t know better, I’d think that the thin veneer of bullshit being held up in front of the “system”, is starting to finally dry up and blow away in the winds of change – leaving bear the ugly truths that nobody wants to see and that everybody has avoided looking at for thirty plus years.

Nah. I must be imagining it.

Otherwise, the “system” would have started a war in order to re-educate the slowly-waking public back to sleep…

… then again, there is a Prezidenshul (S)Election campaign just around the corner.

I understand they’re going to run the three stooges against Obama this time.

Republicans know they’ll never find a better Democrat than Obama to do their dirty work and keep their own party looking clean.

Three terms is the charm!

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop ┬╗

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...
Older Stuff
13:40 It's Great That Winnie The Pooh Is In The Public Domain; But He Should Have Been Free In 1982 (Or Earlier) (35)
12:06 Norton 360 Now Comes With Crypto Mining Capabilities And Sketchy Removal Process (28)
10:45 Chinese Government Dragnet Now Folding In American Social Media Platforms To Silence Dissent (14)
10:40 Daily Deal: The 2022 Ultimate Cybersecurity Analyst Preparation Bundle (0)
09:29 A Fight Between Facebook And The British Medical Journal Highlights The Difficulty Of Moderating 'Medical Misinformation' (9)
06:29 Court Ruling Paves The Way For Better, More Reliable Wi-Fi (4)
20:12 Eighth Circuit (Again) Says There's Nothing Wrong With Detaining Innocent Minors At Gunpoint (15)
15:48 China's Regulatory War On Its Gaming Industry Racks Up 14k Casualties (10)
13:31 Chinese Government Fines Local Car Dealerships For Surveilling While Not Being The Government (5)
12:08 Eric Clapton Pretends To Regret The Decision To Sue Random German Woman Who Listed A Bootleg Of One Of His CDs On Ebay (29)
10:44 ICE Is So Toxic That The DHS's Investigative Wing Is Asking To Be Completely Separated From It (29)
10:39 Daily Deal: The 2022 Complete Raspberry Pi And Arduino Developer Bundle (0)
09:31 Google Blocked An Article About Police From The Intercept... Because The Title Included A Phrase That Was Also A Movie Title (24)
06:22 Wireless Carriers Balk At FAA Demand For 5G Deployment Delays Amid Shaky Safety Concerns (16)
19:53 Tenth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity To Social Worker Who Fabricated A Mother's Confession Of Child Abuse (35)
15:39 Sci-Hub's Creator Thinks Academic Publishers, Not Her Site, Are The Real Threat To Science, And Says: 'Any Law Against Knowledge Is Fundamentally Unjust' (34)
13:32 Federal Court Tells Proud Boys Defendants That Raiding The Capitol Building Isn't Covered By The First Amendment (25)
12:14 US Courts Realizing They Have A Judge Alan Albright Sized Problem In Waco (17)
10:44 Boston Police Department Used Forfeiture Funds To Hide Purchase Of Surveillance Tech From City Reps (16)
10:39 Daily Deal: The Ultimate Microsoft Excel Training Bundle (0)
09:20 NY Senator Proposes Ridiculously Unconstitutional Social Media Law That Is The Mirror Opposite Of Equally Unconstitutional Laws In Florida & Texas (25)
06:12 Telecom Monopolies Are Exploiting Crappy U.S. Broadband Maps To Block Community Broadband Grant Requests (7)
12:00 Funniest/Most Insightful Comments Of 2021 At Techdirt (17)
10:00 Gaming Like It's 1926: Join The Fourth Annual Public Domain Game Jam (6)
09:00 New Year's Message: The Arc Of The Moral Universe Is A Twisty Path (33)
19:39 DHS, ICE Begin Body Camera Pilot Program With Surprisingly Good Policies In Place (7)
15:29 Remembering Techdirt Contributors Sherwin And Elliot (1)
13:32 DC Metro PD's Powerful Review Panel Keeps Giving Bad Cops Their Jobs Back (6)
12:11 Missouri Governor Still Expects Journalists To Be Prosecuted For Showing How His Admin Leaked Teacher Social Security Numbers (39)
10:48 Oversight Board Overturning Instagram Takedown Of Ayahuasca Post Demonstrates The Impossibility Of Content Moderation (10)
More arrow
This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it