Christians and Web Blocking

Version 1.0; 2012-07-02

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Following the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection, chaired by Christian MP Claire Perry, the government has launched a consultation on possibly changing the law to force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to make accessing pornography an adult-only opt-in service - i.e. to "block porn by default". The Prime Minister has indicated he is in favour, a campaign for this change is backed by several Christian organizations, and I'm sure many Christians see support for it as a no-brainer.

What could possibly be wrong with making porn harder to get?

I'm a Christian (my church), and I object to porn as much as the next Christian. One of our pastors has even written a book about it. Porn promotes sin and lust (Matthew 5:27-28) and enslaves people - both creators and viewers. The fewer people who look at it, the better.

But I'm also a geek, and I understand the Internet and how it works. I suggest that this proposal sets a dangerous precedent, will not solve the problem to the degree its proponents hope and will lead to significant unwanted side-effects. Christians should not support it.

A Dangerous Precedent

This system would give a group of people power to censor the Internet. At the moment, the plan would only mandate its use for "pornography" - but the existing (limited and voluntary) system for blocking child porn has already been forced by a judge to be extended to cover a site accused of facilitating copyright infringement. The pre-existence of the blocking technology was a key factor in the judge's decision that the request was reasonable (judgement para 177). Blocking technology is a powerful tool; will it be consistently used for good? If it's pornography today, it's "terrorist content" tomorrow and "hate speech" the day after that - which can easily be stretched to include e.g. an expression of the orthodox Christian view that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. Various mobile providers already block the BNP website as "hate speech". As the Open Rights Group puts it, "whatever you think about the BNP's politics, political speech is at the core of the activities protected by freedom of expression rights. So long as they remain within the law, political parties' websites should never be blocked by ISPs."

Christians should strongly value freedom of expression, because it's necessary to proclaim the gospel. That extends to freedom for those with whom we disagree - because we want them to extend the same freedom to us. In a free market of ideas, we should have confidence that God's truth will prevail in the end (Isaiah 40:8). Therefore Christians, particularly those who see which way the wind is currently blowing in this country, should beware! We don't want to unwittingly support the creation of a technical mechanism for censorship which may be used against us in future.

We can also think about this using an analogy with the physical world. The Post Office transmits messages and information for us (including, on occasions, pornography), just like the Internet. The Post Office is considered a "common carrier" - they are not responsible for what people send, just for getting it to its recipient. The alternative would be that the Post Office was required by law to open every letter and check for illegal content, or risk being taken to court.

We find this possibility a horribly Orwellian idea for paper mail - why should it be any less worrying for other forms of communication? In today's world, it makes sense for ISPs, providing an analogous service, to also have "common carrier" status, and not be put in the role of censor.

It Won't Solve The Problem

Blocking entails making a list of websites to be blocked. You can't even attempt to create a list as long as "all the porn on the Internet" by a process of manual review. Such lists have to be created by an automated system - and computers are not well equipped to make judgement calls about what is porn and what is not.

Sometimes, they block things in error which, to a human, don't even come close to being porn. Our church's website was blocked by O2 Mobile's "adult content filter" (which is enabled by default), and it took several months and the intervention of a digital rights organization to get it unblocked. There's a long list of sites that have had similar difficulties.

This is not just due to "teething problems". Asking ISPs to "block all porn" is technically impossible. There is no way of telling for certain if a particular bundle of 1s and 0s represents porn or not - and approximate guessing will have both false positives and false negatives. As the owner of one ISP put it, requiring ISPs to block all porn is like demanding that opticians only sell glasses that filter out porn as you use them.

And when some people opt out of the filter, not because they want porn but because they are tired of the inaccuracies, they risk being stigmatized and labelled as "porn fiends". ISPs will have to keep lists of those customers who have opted out (in order to give them the correct service), and they are not at all keen on that requirement because they have to keep that data very safe, while still using it in day-to-day operations. Handling sensitive personal data securely is difficult and expensive, as various government and private sector data leaks have demonstrated.

While law-abiding citizens hit the censorship blocks and are denied access (correctly or incorrectly), anyone with the slightest interest in getting around them can do so very easily - often by adding a single letter 's' to the website's address. There are many freely available tools which were written for the praiseworthy purpose of getting around technically similar blocks in countries like China and Russia. Such tools are not difficult to use.

Significant Unwanted Side-Effects

Speaking of China and Russia, Foreign Secretary William Hague recently gave a speech rightly criticising them for censoring the Internet and freedom of speech in their countries. How could our government continue to argue that with a straight face if we are doing exactly the same thing, using the same technology, here in the UK? Those governments would make the same argument that proponents of censorship do in the UK - it's to protect children and society from undesirable content. Why is it OK for us to do it, and not them?

The system would also encourage abdication of parental responsibility. As Christians, we believe that the primary responsibility for bringing up children lies with the parents, not the state or third parties (Deuteronomy 6:4-8). This should include deciding what they see or don't see. And we should encourage other parents to take on their God-given role in this regard.

Given the technical problems, inaccuracy, and ease of getting around these blocks, implementing this proposal might also lull parents into a false sense of security. It will not remove the need for parents to supervise what their children do on the Internet - but for many, the idea that "porn is blocked by default" will encourage them to do just that. And if supervision is reduced, the contact between children and undesirable content might even increase.

Conclusion

So if the current proposals are wrong, what should we have? Compulsory uncensored internet for all?

No. I am highly in favour of individuals and families enacting the blocks which are appropriate for them, and over which they have control if they find errors. Blocking should be opt-in, market-driven rather than government-mandated. If your ISP doesn't help you opt in or set up software, switch! It's not hard. Blocking lists should be under the control of the adult who pays the bill. Parents should be encouraged to take active steps to implement the restrictions on Internet use which are right for their children - anything from continuous supervision, to a content block maintained by the parents, to (for older children) default trust, with occasional review of browser history.

But a centralized, one-size-fits-all, government-controlled solution would be both unwise and ineffective, and Christians should not support it.


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