The UK’s opt-in system for porn is a terrible idea, and here’s why

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Thanks to the curious British institution of prereleasing sections of major speeches, we know now that, later on Monday, the prime minister will announce what will effectively be an on-by-default online pornography filter in the UK. While web users today can opt into activating such a family-friendly filter through their internet service provider (ISP), in the future they will have to opt out.

This has been coming for a long while. Previously, when the government tried to get ISPs to block pornography by default, the ISPs pushed back and the aforementioned off-by-default filter scheme came into being. However, a leaked letter from the government to the ISPs earlier this month showed that this was going to change, like it or not, and here we are.

Some of the words that will fall out of prime minister David Cameron’s mouth later today:

“I want to talk about the internet. The impact it is having on the innocence of our children. How online pornography is corroding childhood. And how, in the darkest corners of the internet, there are things going on that are a direct danger to our children, and that must be stamped out…

“I’m not making this speech because I want to moralise or scaremonger, but because I feel profoundly as a politician, and as a father, that the time for action has come. This is, quite simply, about how we protect our children and their innocence.”

Now, there is no question that children today find it much easier to view pornography than in the pre-internet era. I can certainly see why many people have a problem with this and want to see something done about it. The problem is, this is a bad way of going about it.

A few issues:

And then there’s the potential for such mechanisms being used to censor other types of material – but that’s a slippery-slope argument that deals more with theoretical than immediate dangers. There’s plenty to be worried about with the current proposals.

It should be noted that the government also wants to crack down further on various types of illegal pornography involving children or scenes of real or simulated rape. Web service providers such as Google are being urged to do more to block such content from being listed in their search results, and Cameron wants those searching for illegal content to see pop-up warning pages. There are debates to be had around aspects of this – see this tweet for a salient jibe — but it’s a somewhat different matter from the accessing of legal pornography.

Cameron’s crackdown is, of course, a political matter – particularly after the legalization of gay marriage, the right wing of his Conservative Party is getting antsy. But even without getting into the politics of the proposals, their technological literacy leaves a lot to be desired. If you want to be seen to be doing something, that thing should at least work.

PS – For a spot of unintentional pitch-black humor, here’s how one Conservative MP greeted the proposals, namely through a filter of confusion:

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