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    Need to Find Safe Sex Info in the UK? Sorry, Porn Filters Blocked ItNeed to Find Safe Sex Info in the UK? Sorry, Porn Filters Blocked It

    Need to Find Safe Sex Info in the UK? Sorry, Porn Filters Blocked It

    The UK's crackdown on internet porn, that scourge of filth that's always just a click away, is hitting its stride, with the big four British internet providers rolling out their porn filters as we speak. There's just one problem (well, aside from the concept of blocking porn itself): the filters are also blocking sex education sites.

    Despite high rates of teen pregnancy, providing sex education in schools has remained a contentious issue in the UK, much as it is in the US. While adults and legislators sort things out, the internet's repository of quality sexual health resources are an important backup for anyone who can't get the info elsewhere or was too nervous to ask.

    Now many of those resources are gone too, blocked as part of ISPs' filters, which prompt users to select whether or not they want parental controls to, as service provider BT's prompt puts it, "protect all the devices in your home."

    BBC Newsnight investigated the phenomenon, and found that, among other things, BT's filter blocked a domestic abuse help site, while TalkTalk "lists Edinburgh Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre website as 'pornographic.'" That's not to mention the fact that the filters also failed to block hardcore porn sites, a finding that makes Newsnight's report worth watching.

    The indiscriminate blocking of sex-related things is the reason not to institute a porn filter in the first place. That's not the mention the very real fact that the ISPs' filters block more than just porn, as the Wire's Rebecca Greenfield noted way back in July. Seriously, look at this TalkTalk screenshot from her post:

    That's a lot more than just porn, and it doesn't stop there. A month ago, UK Prime Minister David Cameron trumpeted a new effort by Google and Microsoft to crack down on the dissemination of child porn by blocking some 13,000 search terms. (Searches redirect users to self-help pages.) As Motherboard's UK editor Vicki Turk wrote then,

    Cameron claimed the search queries targeted, which were drawn up by child protection experts, were “unambiguous,” but that seems quite frankly impossible. There are reportedly as many as 100,000 terms on the list—for comparison, the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains 231,100 entries. There seems a real risk, then, of the algorithm overreaching and preventing web users from accessing perfectly legal content. 

    Even if Google and Microsoft developed perfect blocking algorithms, which is a rather gargantuan "if," that risk for overreach is clearly happening with ISP filters. Even to someone sympathetic to the idea of an opt-out porn blocking system, seeing that system block important, useful knowledge by accident should be unacceptable.

    But legislators, quick to pick up points for protecting the children from the scary internet, don't see it that way. Earlier this year, Iceland—normally considered by outsiders to be a fairly liberal nation—won headlines for one lawmaker's push for a porn ban, a goal that's ongoing. Iceland's effort signaled a renewed emphasis in the West on cleaning up the web; lo and behold, months later the UK's porn filter system, which previously was rejected, is now being implemented.

    The morality argument—whether or not porn is deserving of being banned—is important in its own right, but the argument over filtering the web is even more important. The internet's days of being some Wild West reserved for a savvy section of the population are long dead; like it or not, it's instead become a requisite for success in the modern world.

    While I certainly don't begrudge parents wanting to utilize filters to keep their kids away from the dirtier portions of the web, forcing those filters upon an entire country isn't the answer. And forcing the issue is exactly what Cameron is doing; while users can opt out, they're presented with a choice: Do you want a safe web or not?

    It's a false dichotomy, and a dangerous one. Legislators—who, by the way, love porn—setting themselves up as the arbiters of what's safe and good and what's deserving of being filtered, opt-out or not, is a strike directly at principle of free speech. That may sound a bit grandiose, but when tens of thousands of search terms can be banned at the flip of the switch, we have to look at the grand scale.

    At the end of the day, it's shocking that a government would force internet filters upon its nation, and the opt-out nature isn't a fix, because it simply separates users into normals and porn lovers, which is certainly not the actual case. But to find out that those filters also indiscriminately block sites they don't intend to? That's far worse.

    @derektmead

    Lead photo via Bradley Fulton/Flickr

    Topics: Internet, porn, Uk porn ban, porn filters, censorship, free speech, sex

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