Sunday, December 10, 2006

Internet censorship

Dear Frank Dobson,

It is common knowledge that China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea operate Internet censorship. Should we add United Kingdom to the list? Since 2004, Britain has quietly - very quietly - been incorporating a layer of comprehensive web censorship into its technical infrastructure,

"The decision by Britain's largest high-speed internet provider will lead to the first mass censorship of the web attempted in a Western democracy." - The Observer, Sunday June 6, 2004

Led by BT (the largest Internet-access/service provider, or 'ISP') with the full support of the Labour Government, the 'Cleanfeed' system can accurately ban a website, a web page, even a specific image which it - at the sole discretion of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) - deems illegal. The government is enthusiastic to expand the system to every ISP:

"the biggest ISPs (who between them provide over 90% of domestic broadband connections) are either currently blocking or have plans to by the end of 2006" - the IWF (http://www.iwf.org.uk/government/page.156.381.htm)

I don't wish illegal websites to be available: but we are fast moving towards a comprehensive system capable of banning from UK citizens, with fine-granularity, any content arbitrarily deemed inappropriate. While I applaud any move toward protecting children online, the current process is undemocratic.

BT, nor any ISP association, the IWF nor the government publish formal information on the Cleanfeed system itself, how it operates, within what constraints or to whom it is accountable. The list of banned sites is kept strictly secret. There is no independent check on the statistics generated by BT that claim to show the scale of the problem and effectiveness opposing it. ISPs that implement Cleanfeed are under no obligation to inform their users - and most do not. There appears a serious lack of democratic checks and balances.

I met Sir Christopher Meyer recently. He voiced an impassioned defense of the self-regulation that the PCC provides for the Press. In the PCC, judgments are made by a Commission, who are required to be independent and register their interests. The IWF, by contrast, assures us that:

"Our Internet Content Analysts who make up our 'hotline' team undergo comprehensive police and in-house training on all aspects of assessing and tracing internet content." (http://www.iwf.org.uk/public/page.31.htm)

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

In the case of an appeal (detail below), apparently the 'management of the IWF' decides. The final port of call for a resolution is the Police. Not a judge: the Police. I hope the phrase 'Separation of Powers' might set alarm bells ringing here..

Even if we accept that some level of national filtering is desirable to remove the worst offenders, this particular system was undemocratic in creation - and more seriously is deeply undemocratic in operation.

My worry is that first this system targets the child pornographers, but I'm not a pornographer. Next it will go after websites 'glorifying terrorism' - but I'm not a terrorist. When it comes after those critical of religion or the freedom to cause offense, Mr. Dobson: who will speak for me?

Labour has already banned spontaneous protest outside the Houses of Parliament/Trafalgar Square and is pushing for 90-day no-evidence detention. While serious infringements of civil liberty, these pale in comparison to the potential ramifications of this. Freedom of information and expression, at the foundation of our society, is under threat.

I hope you will review the serious lack of democratic credentials of this embryonic, comprehensive internet censorship programme - and recommend to Parliament greater involvement and a correction of direction, before it is too late.

Sources:

Observer article quoted available online at: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,1232422,00.html

IWF Complaints and Appeals Procedure
"Any person or organisation that feels that a URL has been included on the CAI list incorrectly, can appeal. If, on receipt of a complaint, the relevant URL is subsequently found not to contain potentially illegal images, then the URL will be removed from the database. If, however, in the expert opinion of the management at the IWF, the content is still potentially illegal under UK law, then the URL will remain on the list. The complainant can then make further representations in which case the matter will be referred to the NCS POLIT (National Crime Squads Paedophile Online Investigation Team) who will further review the URL concerned and make their judgement. The police judgement is final." - http://www.iwf.org.uk/corporate/page.121.251.htm

Pastor Martin Niemöller's original 'First they came..' poem: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came...

Evidence of Government support for Cleanfeed: John Reid wrote the foreword to a related proposal by the NCH Children's charity: http://www.nch.org.uk/uploads/documents/0151_OutofSigh_%20Exec.pdf

Links correct as of 10th December 2006.

2 comments:

Arclin said...

I think internet censorship should be vehemently opposed as should all forms of censorship. Why should any adult have the right to decide what another can and cannot see, read and hear. We do need protection but that should not mean censorship, which only hides up from the truth. To lay the final judgement at the hands of the police is just scary, most of them aren't as bright as my cat.
Yes the net should be policed, but not censored, and they should ultimately be answerable to the people.

Pharkie said...

You oppose all forms of censorship?

I'd think most people would want to censor some stuff: maybe evidence of a serious crime being commited e.g. pics of a murder or video of a rape?

I'd say that even if there's only a single example in a single media in a single circumstance that you'd want censored, then the argument for an effective system of censorship stands.

It's then a question of who does the censoring.

We do pretty well in the UK. You can watch a Tarintino film. You buy a book by De Sade. You can watch a TV programme like Jerry Springer. All of these survive existing censorship systems and we can be encouraged by that.

All of these are one human telling others what they can/cannot see - but it works. The deciding person can be a judge or jury, rather than some faceless employee of a random organisation or indeed the Police.

So the problem is that the UK censorship of the Internet is of a completely non-democratic character, with none of the safeguards that other media enjoy. This means no protection for the right to exist for the kind of controversial material mentioned.

It's throwing the baby (the valuable culture that isn't to everyone's taste) out with the bathwater (the illegal porn).