Open Rights Group: Internet Censorship “Doesn’t Work”

As different governments push for Internet censorship for a variety of reasons, the Open Rights Group is pointing out that such ideas don’t work.

Multiple governments are currently contemplating implementing Internet censorship for a variety of reasons. In the UK, lawmakers are still trying to implement Internet censorship to block pornography. Meanwhile, lobbyists are pushing for Canada to censor the Internet supposedly as a method to stop copyright infringement. Australia, on the other hand, is censoring the Internet to stop, well, just about everything “undesirable” at this point. For Australia, there doesn’t really appear to be a limit to what can get censored.

As we’ve shown time and time again, Internet censorship is an unworkable idea that abridges free speech and utterly fails to block the content it aims to block. Recently, the Open Rights Group, a British based digital rights group, is reminding the public of this. From the organization:

Blocking websites isn’t working. It’s not keeping children safe and it’s stopping vulnerable people from accessing information they need. It’s not the right approach to take on “Online Harms”.

This is the finding from our recent research into website blocking by mobile and broadband Internet providers. And yet, as part of its Internet regulation agenda, the UK Government wants to roll out even more blocking.

The Government’s Online Harms White Paper is focused on making online companies fulfil a “duty of care” to protect users from “harmful content” – two terms that remain troublingly ill-defined.1

The paper proposes giving a regulator various punitive measures to use against companies that fail to fulfil this duty, including powers to block websites.

If this scheme comes into effect, it could lead to widespread automated blocking of legal content for people in the UK.

The comments are backed by a study (PDF) conducted by the organization. It is entitled “Collateral Damage in the War Against Online Harms” and concludes, in part, with the following:

Filters are an attempt to use technology as a quick fix for a complex social problem. This approach was always going to be flawed and it is time that the Government reviewed it objectively.

Keeping children safe, both online and off, should be a priority for the Government. But there is no evidence that filters are succeeding in their objective of preventing children from seeing adult content, or keeping them safe online. Parents are being misled, children are being encouraged to circumvent technology, and a whole range of businesses and organisations are being harmed.

Using filters is the prerogative of any parent, but ISPs have a duty to make their customers aware of the limitations of filters and promote other ways of keeping children safe online. This includes explaining that device-level filters aimed at individual needs are more likely to be suitable than whole-home products.

It is clear from our research that blocking errors are widespread and affect many kinds of content. It is also clear that trying to categorise all content on the Internet cannot be done accurately within current technology, not least because content is constantly changing. The only practical way to limit the harm of filters is to restrict their use. Indeed, the breadth of restriction they impose is cited as a factor that prevents parents from using them.

We also need rigorous research into whether filters are meeting their stated policy goals. We cannot continue to pursue a policy of blocking more and more without genuinely investing in other solutions, particularly education.

Some of the data used in the study comes from their online research project called Blocked. The tool is used to gather information on what is and isn’t blocked in the UK partly thanks to users who use this online checking tool. At the moment, for example, Freezenet is not currently experiencing censorship, but we know that this can always change at any moment. Any URL can be checked and the service also shows past censorship blocks that were put in place.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that this online checking tool only covers UK services. Still, it is proving to be quite a useful tool for UK residents.

All this is certainly another reminder why site blocking is never going to be a reasonable solution. As governments consider censorship as a solution to whatever social issue they can conjure up, research like this can prove to be a valuable counterargument in the quest to protect free speech.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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