Government extends porn filter to 'extremist' content

November 29, 2013 | 11:05

Tags: #censor #censorship #free-speech #jim-killock #peter-bradwell #privacy

Companies: #david-cameron #open-rights-group #uk-government

Prime Minister David Cameron has revealed plans to use filtering powers ostensibly introduced to fight child pornography to also filter out 'extremist' political content - widening the scope of the filters before they are even properly in place.

When Cameron announced plans to introduce block-by-default web filters in the UK, an extension of the system already put in place to block child pornography then silently extended to block peer-to-peer and file download sites at the behest of the media industry, critics claimed that while the overall goal of protecting children was laudable the mandatory filters would be the peak of a very slippery slope. 'If we go down this route,' Pirate Party leader Loz Kaye told us at the time, 'each week we risk a new knee jerk reaction will add to the list of what politicians decide we can not see.'

Kaye's prescience was proved this week when Cameron made a clear statement of intent during Prime Minister's Questions: 'We have had repeated meetings of the Extremism Task Force — it met again yesterday — setting out a whole series of steps that we will take to counter the extremist narrative,' Cameron claimed, 'including by blocking online sites.'

To be clear, the Extremism Task Force is not an organisation set up to counter child pornography, but a group formed following the murder of soldier Lee Rigby, allegedly carried out by two self-proclaimed Muslims - who, coincidentally, stand trial for that crime today - designed to investigate and prevent terrorism and religious extremism in the UK. The group's involvement in web filtering in the UK was further confirmed by Home Office Minister James Brokenshire, who stated that an announcement on the matter would be forthcoming.

With the filters having been initially introduced to block child pornography, and then extended to require the user to opt-out of the system in order to view even legal pornography - when the filters work at all, anyway - this is a clear example of feature creep, and it has privacy and free speech campaigners concerned for the future.

'This is yet more gesture politics. Brokenshire risks handing terrorists new propaganda victories as they look more effective than they are and can also claim to be victimised. Meanwhile, web blocks are at best a kind of net curtain that can be trivially evaded by those seeking the content,' claimed Open Rights Group director Jim Killock. 'At the minimum, the government must get a court order, and use the law. But they appear to be proposing to make up lists and tell companies to take action on the say-so of police officers or bureaucrats. That would be unacceptable by any measure.'

Peter Bradwell, also of the ORG, has highlighted what he claims are 'backroom deals' by groups which simply cannot be trusted. In a blog post, Bradwell writes: 'The government's policy on extremism content can't just be that ISPs should block sites that have been classified as extreme by some secretive government body, without any court decision about a law being broken or any public, democratic discussion in Parliament about the process involved. This should not be another drift towards vague, unaccountable and privatised Internet regulation. This sort of Internet regulation is about who decides what we - not just 'terrorists' - can look at and do online.

'Maybe the government will surprise us with their announcement. But we have seen that when it comes to Internet blocking the government has a tendency to prioritise making favourable headlines above a smart, effective policy fix. So fingers are crossed in hope rather than expectation.'

The government has yet to offer a date for its formal announcement of the newly extended mandatory filters.
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