ISP Level anti-porn Filters – The Arguments

In the past few months the debate around filtering of porn and adult material on the internet has once again raised it’s head in the UK. Quite often the same, standard arguments are put forward by those that oppose the idea. These arguments are increasingly being found wanting, and there is a growing demand for a Family Safe ISP service, asking that all internent service providers give the voluntary ability for account holders to choose to have pornography filtered before it even gets into the home.

In December 2010, Claire Perry MP led a debate in parliament on the issue (which can be viewed here). This was picked up by the press, with the Sunday Times carrying a front page article in the paper and a large article in their Sunday Times Magazine. Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, is expected be holding a round-table meeting with the major UK internet service providers early in 2011.

So, why are people asking for this? The internet has changed dramatically since it was first founded. Not only that, there are now a plethora of web-enabled devices floating around the home. Gone are the days when a single, expensive PC took central place in the home connected to slow dialup.

Today, scattered around the home, are various computers and laptops as well as web-enabled phones, games consoles, blu-ray players etc. In addition there is a growing body of evidence, that children are becoming exposed to porn at an increasingly younger age (often as young as 11) and that this exposure can have a detrimental effect on their health, as described  in the UK Governments’ Sexualisation of Young People report in 2010.

It has also been noted that many porn sites are run by criminal organisations and that porn sites are often linked to cyber attacks. An ISP level filter could therefore also help increase computer security and reduce malicious computer attacks.

So with this in mind, more people are asking for the ability to block porn before it even gets into the home. And here are the arguments around the issue:

Censorship

  • Against: An ISP level filter amounts to censorship of web content, a denial of freedom of expression and is the first part of the UK governments attempt to gain control of the web. Any censorship of the web of any kind should always be resisted.
  • For: The ISP level filter would be voluntary. Each customer would be able to choose to have it switched on or off at will. Therefore this is not censorship, but self regulated control. It is not restricting access to porn of freedom of expression to those who still want it. As a voluntary option, it is not controlled by the government.

On a separate note on censorship, the ISPs are required, by law, to filter out child pornography where possible. This is blanket censorship of such material, but few people are likely to object.

Impractical

  • Against: The technology does not exist and it is not possible to do.
  • For: Many mobile phone companies already have such filters on web enabled phones (see article). If it is possible for mobile phones then surely it should be possible for ISPs. In addition, other industries have managed this to some degree. Examples include Google with their SafeSearch options, filtering every single search. Various companies offer PC based filters. Surely these technologies can be adapted to use at the ISP level. TalkTalk are interested in the idea, so they obviously think it is possible.

It Can Not be Perfect

  • Against: An ISP level filter can never be designed to catch everything, and therefore should not be done. Hundreds of new porn sites appear daily, and no filter can keep up.
  • For: Perfection is not being demanded, but an ISP level filter can catch most of the sites. Also, a way of reporting new sites can be built in allowing the public to continue to add to the database.

It is the Parents Responsibility

  • Against: It is up to the parents to control and monitor what their children see on their computers. The ISPs are only the gate through which material flows, and should not take on the job of gate-keeper.
  • For: Having the ability to control at one point all the porn that comes into a home is the best tool a parent could have to execute that responsibility. There are now too many devices in the home to manage individually, and the optional ISP level filter would be a powerful tool to help do the job.

PC Filters are Already Available

  • Against: There are already tools available that do this so there is no need for ISP level filters.
  • For: PC level filters are often easily worked around. The time taken to manage each computer in the home is becoming increasingly burdensome. The filters can not keep up with new web-enabled devices. The ISP level filter would be a better and more useful tool.

ISPs also quote issues of cost. However, they could adopt a business model similar to the Cable / Satellite TV companies, who charge clients for access to adult content.

Another point worth bearing in mind, the cost of applying the filters now would have to be much less than that of fighting off court cases later where adults then try to sue the ISPs for exposure to porn as a child, which the ISP could have prevented but chose not to, that the adult claim has had an adverse impact on their health and life. This may seem far fetched, but, as with cigarettes, a class action in the future is, I suspect, more than just a mere possibility.

The last argument recently voiced is that men would be against this as the ISP level filter would block their own access to porn in the home. I doubt, however, that most men oppose it when their wives and partners say ‘Honey, I want us to activate this ISP anti-porn filter to protect our children.’

Obviously, the application of ISP level filters has application outside the home, and could also be a useful tool in public spaces, like libraries and schools, that also have to fight porn off the computers.

For more links to various articles, see the Family Safe ISP page on FaceBook.

(Article by Peter Watts)

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