July 28, 2013

(Don't) Send in the (Internet Censorship) Clowns!

Great Britain had two princes to talk about last week. One was the widely celebrated birth of the new Prince George, a joyful occasion indeed.

The other "prince" -- actually a "clown prince" named David Cameron to be more precise -- was playing the fool somewhat under the radar, and we can excuse the British people for not noticing him as much amid the celebration of George's arrival.

To call Prime Minister Cameron a "clown" at all might reasonably be taken by some as an affront to clowns and jesters reaching back through history. Because Cameron's style of clowning is far more akin to the nightmarish, sneering "clowns" of "B" horror movies, not the bringers of entertainment under the big top.

Cameron, through a series of inane and grandstanding statements and pronouncements both deeply technically clueless and shamelessly politically motivated, has been channeling Napoleon by placing the clown prince crown on his own head.

Laughing at his antics would be a terrible mistake. For his wet dream of Internet censorship poses an enormous risk not only to the UK, but to other nations around the world who might seek comfort in his idiocy for their own censorship regimes (already, calls have been made in Canada to emulate Cameron's proposed model).

David Cameron's buffoonery in this context appears to have started with what (he apparently and wildly inaccurately assumed) was a simple concept -- force UK Internet users to "opt-in" if they wanted to be able to access "pornography" on the Internet (though, as we'll see, his censorship plans have always been much broader in scope).

The politics of the situation seem clear enough -- a specific British tabloid has been pushing hard to promote Internet censorship, and Cameron knows well enough which side of his bread is buttered.

Under his scheme, existing UK Internet users would be forced to choose a "filtered" (that is, censored), or "unfiltered" (sort of unfiltered, anyway) Internet feed. If they didn't choose, they'd get the censored version. New users would be automatically given the censored version, and would have to explicitly opt-in to the uncensored variety.

Perhaps unwittingly and ignorantly, Cameron implied that the vast Chinese censorship apparatus was his model for Great Britain. He managed this bizarre feat by choosing to praise the (currently opt-in for filtering) content blocking system offered by one British ISP, which just happens to be owned and operated by the true masters of Internet censorship -- China itself (and reportedly, virtually all of that ISP's user data routes through the Chinese system, whether individual subscribers have chosen to activate the content controls or not).

Cameron wants this Chinese-style filtering to instead be the default, and you'd have to explicitly ask (and perhaps, find yourself on some rather interesting government lists!) to be exempted from Cameron's Content Censorship.

That is, to the extent you were allowed to escape -- because Cameron's plans are extraordinarily extensive, as we'll see in a moment.

Almost instantly when he announced his proposal, negative reactions and questions started bubbling up from all quarters.

Proxies, VPNs, and the like could easily evade such a filtering regime. Did Cameron plan to try block those, too?

How does Cameron define pornography? Soft core? Hard core? Images only? Literature? Would sex health information be blocked? What of sources that have a wide variety of imagery, only some of which is sexually oriented? Tumblr? Google Images? Flickr? What about written works like "Fifty Shades of Grey" -- or "Lady Chatterley's Lover" or ... ?

What would happen in homes where one adult wanted to privately look at such materials and the other didn't even know about it? Will they have to fight over the censorship setting?

Who will actually make and maintain the block lists? The UK government? The Chinese content filtering company? Rupert Murdoch?

To most of these and virtually every other related question, David Cameron's response has amounted to Alfred E. Neuman's classic tagline from "Mad Magazine" -- that is, "What - Me worry?" (in other words, "Golly, I dunno!")

But he (Cameron, not Alfred) hasn't been completely devoid of additional information.

It quickly became clear that his plans for Internet censorship went far beyond his "opt-out" model for porn filtering, to include a wide array of other material that would be banned entirely -- no exceptions.

Cameron has proposed total blocking, both at the site and search engine keyword level, for whole ranges of other information, including what he defines
as "self harm and other dangerous topics."

He proposes that access to such sites, or attempts to search on related keywords, would be blocked and return pages explaining that the related materials were unavailable, or illegal, or ... whatever. And again, it's hard to believe that the government wouldn't want to keep track of who was making those queries for any reason, which of course could also include researchers, reporters, and others with completely benign motives.

The "slippery slope" aspects of Cameron's censorship cadenza are obvious. What he's demanding is nothing less than total control over Internet site access, and micromanagement of search engine results.

Cameron even ran into trouble with what he no doubt thought was a politically safe expansion of "forbidden" content -- suggesting that "rape imagery" should have the same status as child abuse materials -- illegal to produce or possess.

While virtually nobody argues against efforts to control the abhorrence of child abuse and associated imagery (though attempts to block such images, like all censorship attempts, tend to push them further underground and may make them even more difficult to monitor by authorities), Cameron likely was surprised by the pushback against his "rape imagery" criminalization proposal -- from both males and females -- with some of the strongest denunciations from the latter.

It was quickly noted that studies have shown virtually all such material is simulated, that no correlation with actual rapes has ever been demonstrated, and that (as politically incorrect and inconvenient as this undoubtedly is) "rape fantasies" broadly defined have been shown to be common among normal persons both male and female. Observers expressed concerns about such censorship efforts driving this category dangerously underground as well (with some suggestions that this really represents an attack against the consensual BDSM community more than anything else).

This is a particularly uncomfortable and disquieting subject to be sure, but it's dangerous in the extreme to let our emotions get in the way of logical thinking when it comes to censorship (or anything else, for that matter) -- even though politicians disingenuously depend on our permitting our glands to override our brains.

In the end, we're faced with only two major, reasonable possibilities when it comes to David Cameron's Internet censorship agenda. Either he really hasn't thought most of this through, especially considering his repeated expressions of ignorance regarding details, practicality, or impacts and collateral damage -- or he's simply being a blatant political opportunist, who knows full well that he's proposed an Internet censorship regime that would gladden the heart of pretty much any tyrant, anywhere, and is likely to give encouragement and comfort to repressive governments around the world today.

Cameron and his Internet censorship docket are of course a matter for the British people to deal with as they feel appropriate. If vast and pervasive (though counterproductive and ultimately ineffective) attempts at censorship are what you want, your prime minister appears more than happy to provide them.

If that's not what you want ... well ... you know how to deal with PMs who are full of themselves.

But over here across the pond, my main concern is that David Cameron's nonsense will inspire other political clown princes to try ply similar brands of oppression against free speech, and that's a scenario best restricted to actual nightmares, not waking reality.

So in this case, please -- don't send in the clowns!

I just hope too many of them aren't already here.


Posted by Lauren at July 28, 2013 11:38 AM | Permalink
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