Slipping Through the Net: How is the Porn Filter Going to Work?

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Tim Boden

Tim Boden has been a grumpy old man since he was about 13. Born and raised in the darkest East Midlands, he now lives in Australia as part of an ongoing project to avoid getting a proper job and settling down for as long as reasonably possible. His interests include comics, beer, rugby league, 20th-century history and other things mostly favoured by middle-aged men who spend a lot of time in sheds. He has very strong opinions on vegetables.

As you’ve probably heard by now, it’s official – all UK households are going to have internet porn blocked by default. In future, if you want to log on and get off, you’ll either have to get in touch with your ISP to let them know you’d like the smut tap to be kept turned on, or else resort to retro alternatives like top-shelf magazines and spying on your neighbours.

Some people will be pleased by this news, others annoyed, and many more will shrug their shoulders and consider it no big deal either way. But regardless of one’s stance on the issue, all of us should be concerned about how the porn filter will work in practice. If it isn’t implemented very carefully, the new filth-free internet could be more trouble than it’s worth.

Firstly, there’s the question of what we’re defining as porn. Even leaving aside the age-old debate over the line between art and obscenity, there’s a huge grey area between the obviously pornographic and the obviously not-pornographic. Having explicit discussion of sex doesn’t necessarily make something sexy – what are the filtering systems going to make, for example, of sex education, medical advice on topics such as conception or STDs, websites offering support for sexual abuse survivors or news reports on rape cases?

And as anyone who’s spent more than about fifteen minutes online knows, people are capable of getting off on anything. Take these pictures of wool fetishists, for example – I promise you, everybody in the linked article is, if anything, more clothed than usual, but to folks who get the horn from herringbone, that’s porn. Or how about this video of a woman popping balloons? It won’t do much for most people, but to a balloon fetishist, that’s hot stuff. If the filter takes into account everything that someone, somewhere, might be turned on by, we’re not going to have any internet left.

There’s also the question of who’s actually going to be doing the filtering. The sheer scale of the task makes it near-impossible to do on a page-by-page basis, but using automated filtering software – as most ISPs will be – means there’s even more potential for error. Last week’s Top Gear, for example, mentioned the possibility that pictures of orange cars may be taken out by systems designed to scan for large patches of exposed skin, and as a young teen I inadvertently learned a whole new dirty word from some over-zealous coding on a Harry Potter fan forum which would automatically censor any mention of the word ‘spoon’ on the grounds that it contained ‘poon’. The Scunthorpe Tourist Board, no doubt, are despairing.

What, too, of websites that aren’t pornographic in themselves but which might host explicit content? Is the filter going to take out the entirety of Twitter and Tumblr because someone you follow might link or reblog something smutty? Are households that keep the filter on going to find themselves unable to, say, purchase a copy of Nine Songs or Fifty Shades of Grey from Amazon? What happens if, a bit like the old horror movie trope about the call coming from inside the building, somebody whose internet access is being filtered has a Skype chat that takes a turn for the flirty or drunkenly brags about their sexual exploits on their blog?

Inevitably, people are going to find ways around it. It’ll only take a matter of hours for someone to figure out how to hack the system or to play it in ways that the filter doesn’t catch what’s right in front of it, and the same goes with each way of blocking the workaround that’s put into place. David Cameron has requested that search engines blacklist certain terms he considers ‘horrific’, but all it takes is for someone to come up with a new slang phrase and the term becomes searchable all over again. (And it’s not like porn needs any encouragement to go about ruining perfectly decent words and phrases, as anyone who’s frantically had to stop a very young or very old relative from looking up pictures of pussies or recipes for cream pie will know all too well.)

The current government do seem to have a habit of making up policies without really thinking through the implications. Sometimes, like with the pasty tax and the plan to privatise the forests, there’s a hasty U-turn when they realise the difficulties of making it work. In other cases, unfortunately, they press ahead regardless and let the poor sods on the ground deal with the consequences, as pretty much anyone in the newly reshuffled NHS could tell you at great length. Given the unpopularity of the proposals with the internet service providers themselves and the logistical headache of making it work, this proposal could well die before ever properly coming into effect. Maybe, like Labour’s plan for ID cards (lest we forget that worrying authoritarianism and grand but ill-conceived ventures aren’t restricted to the Tory party), it’ll barely get off the starting blocks before being hastily scrapped by the next administration as an easy way to score favour with the public.

Nevertheless, those of us against this policy can’t pin our hopes on it collapsing from its own unwieldiness. I thought that about the coalition back in 2010, and look what happened there. China and North Korea have proved that you can control the internet, mostly, if you put enough time and effort into it. The question in this case will be whether that time and effort is worth it. Which maybe it might – I keep hearing that we need today’s youth to become more skilled at the nuts and bolts of computing, and maybe this is just the incentive some people need.

When we’re living in the technological utopia of 2030, with a whole new generation of tech geniuses having brought prosperity and success to the nation with their highly-tuned coding and programming abilities, we’ll thank David Cameron for the policy that started it all.

Or maybe it’ll just be a bloody pain in the arse. We’ll see.

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