Comment: Three embarrassing truths about Cameron's porn filter

Jane Fae: David Cameron has demonstrated both ignorance of the internet, and a truly irresponsible attitude to policing it.
Jane Fae: David Cameron has demonstrated both ignorance of the internet, and a truly irresponsible attitude to policing it.

By Jane Fae

When it comes to blocking and filtering, the government and David Cameron in particular have demonstrated both ignorance of the internet, and a truly irresponsible attitude to policing it. The time has surely come to re-inject some balance into the debate.

Blocking and filtering has finally arrived and while the sky may not exactly have fallen in, many of the drawbacks warned of by those of us who actually know a thing or two about the internet, are also now all too apparent. As the BBC reported last night, there is over-blocking and there is under-blocking.

Both of which surely will be dismissed by various government spokespeople such as Clare Perry MP as "teething problems".  This would be fair enough, were it not for three quite embarrassing truths.

First as mentioned above nothing in what is now happening is unpredictable or unexpected.  As has been argued over the last year or so, the government’s response to a perceived problem has been to demand that UK internet providers simply open their backdoors to a bunch of unregulated, secretive commercial interests, operating mostly on the basis of non-British cultural values. 

So while the papers agonise over British culture being "polluted" by a tidal wave of immigration, Cameron et al have proudly proclaimed the imposition of non-British values in almost every household in the land by default. The bulk of UK filtering now originates in places such as the US and China, whose values are so obviously identical to our own!

Second, while there was always going to be collateral damage, the damage that has happened is hitting the most vulnerable hardest.  Those who are most timid about or least able to seek out advice around sex and sexuality are finding vital advice lines blocked.  Because they feature S-E-X.

I have lost count, now, of the ludicrous range of topics that the big providers like Facebook or BSkyB or OpenDNS or whoever is in the frame at any particular moment have blocked. Often quite wilfully. Breastfeeding – because women’s breasts are always only sexual, naturally.  Rape crisis sites. Art galleries. Female nipples (but not male ones!). LGBT sites. Sex Ed helplines.  The list is endless, the cultural perspective depressing.

Because the block lists betray quite the opposite of what some campaigners are demanding: not respect for female bodies, but an absolute male hegemonic view that female bodies are always ultimately sexual.  Heteronormativity is there, too, in spades: want help with your sexuality – especially if you are young, or gay or trans? Well increasingly, you won’t be able to.

Says who? Ah, yes: a bunch of companies based in countries whose attitudes towards the non-straight is so much less progressive than our own. Yesterday, and following a shock Indian court ruling that re-criminalised gay relationships, Facebook shamefully blocked a picture of two Sikhs kissing. The picture was both statement and political act. Facebook excused their block as a mistake.

Only it wasn’t. It was the inevitable result of a process that entrenches a particular monocultural moral viewpoint on everything that we are allowed to see and think.

Of course, some of the most egregious over-blocking will get fixed, relatively quickly. Though that, too, betrays a particular world view: one that plays to the idea of the internet as commercial space that must be kept safe for big business.


Blocking and filtering will scarcely scratch the surface of the claimed societal sexualisation that is allegedly harming girls and boys. Nor, mostly, will it trouble the likes of Richard Desmond, who genuinely believes that his businesses have never dabbled in porn.

It will be the small specialist amateur sites that will go, as many have already.  And that includes sites that, however much one disapproves of exotic sexuality, did a public service by providing safety advice on BDSM.  Because unless government can stop individuals indulging in kink, surely it's better that people do it safely than otherwise?

Third, there still is a relatively straightforward solution to such problems. The current crop of filtering and blocking companies won’t publish their lists and algorithms because they claim these would be a goldmine for anyone looking for the material blocked.  Though since much of it is legal, where’s the problem with that?

The real reason is that they don’t want their intellectual property just opened up to all and sundry. There’s problems too with classification, as different blockers organise their block-lists into different numbers of different categories.  And there are problems with reporting mis-allocated content (either over or under-blocked).

There are major structural issues with how the blocking industry works, even though such issues could be fixed very easily by one simple agreement and three easy back-up steps. The agreement would be that no-one use a blocking system that did not attain some broadly accepted degree of UK acceptability. A kitemark perhaps?

In order to achieve such acceptability, any filtering system would need to:

  • Use standard categories of blocking/filtering, so the reason that a site was blocked in one system would be the same as the reason in any other system;
  • Subscribe to a central clearing station for complaints about blocks, with all decisions percolated outward to all systems within a minimum period of time;
  • The setting of agreed minimum standards for over- and under- blocking, with a central adjudicator (a retired BBFC censor, perhaps) appointed to carry out regular audits of online filtering systems.

This would take a little effort on the part of the industry: it might even require some government support.  But since government, in the shape of the Prime Minister himself, has gone on record as determining this issue to be so important that legislation would follow if industry failed to regulate itself, it is odd that they did not simultaneously consider ways to make sure such regulation was fair and proportionate and rational.

Equally odd is their decision to allow the moral safety of UK families to be determined by commercial interest and filtering systems built around artificially different unique sales propositions

Or maybe not. The imperative, clearly, has been to be seen to be doing something. Whereas listening to people who know how the internet works would take time and get in the way of scoring easy political points. And that would never do, would it?

Jane Fae is a feminist and writer on gender issues. You can read more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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