Britain’s largest internet provider, BT, is offering its customers the option to block sex education, “gay and lesbian lifestyle” websites, and non-adult content about sexual health, as UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s sweeping plans for a filtered internet come into effect.
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In an article about state interference with the internet, GigaOm’s Jeff John Roberts made the editorial decision to mention the UK and North Korea, together, in the same headline. While there is a certain level of caustic hyperbole in doing so, advocates for web freedom have been highlighting the slippery slope Cameron’s government has been careening down for years. Now, one paragraph, hidden away on the customer care page for Britain’s biggest internet provider, brings questions of censorship and the potential harm it can do sharply into focus.
British Telecom’s customer care page, titled “Blocking categories on Parental control”, details a list of topics customers can choose to filter. Tucked away at the bottom, after the expected violence, hate, pornography, and drugs options, is “Sex Education”.
It reads: “Sex Education will block sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.”
While sex education pages will not be blocked by default, the mere existence of it as an option sends a deeply worrying message to BT’s customers.
An “opt-in” web filter means new customers will have to decide which material they are able to view at the start of their contract. It was sold to the public as a way to keep children safe, but in fact, it could do the very opposite. For a child, a teenager, or a young adult who is concerned they are being abused, or who needs information, providing easily accessible filters could potentially put more control in the hands of the abuser.
Of course, it was already possible for households to filter what their children can see. But pigeonholing legitimate information about sexuality and health in with animal cruelty and pornography is wholly regressive. Just what about respecting a partner is controversial? Why make it easier to deny young people access to support, when they may already feel isolated in a difficult household? Though politicians frequently kowtow to fear about the darker corners of the Internet, turning to the web can provide a safe haven when young people might otherwise feel alone.
BT has not commented at the time of publication.
Perhaps this also speaks volumes about the long-term prospects of Cameron imposing his moralism on the internet. As critics have pointed out, censorship on national lines is a mammoth task, nonsensical and an impractical nightmare, but he pressed ahead with the proposals regardless. To anyone with a degree of technical nous, this extent of meddling is simply not productive in any capacity. Its stench is one of ignorance, vote-grabbing, and ideological cynicism. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales slammed the plans as “absolutely ridiculous”.
Cameron’s project amounts to the state deciding that withholding information from the public is OK. When a government declares it plans to block legal content – described in phenomenally vague terms like ‘esoteric material’ – the censorship net is cast widely and without definition. The British government will want to distance itself, but make no mistake, it is culpable – having put pressure on internet providers in the first place.