NEWS
Whether it's porn or piracy, ISPs should not be forced to police the internet
01 May 2012
BY JO GLANVILLE

Why did the Today Programme invite Claire Perry MP to debate website blocking this morning? Aside from giving Perry an impression of authority on the internet that she does not command — the peg for the discussion was the high court ruling that ISPs block the music file-sharing site Pirate Bay. Perry is leading a campaign to make internet service providers (ISPs) responsible for access to pornography online. While both issues concern ISPs’ role as gatekeepers, conflating pornography (legal) with copyright infringement (illegal) dangerously muddies the argument – a point that the Internet Service Provider Association’s Nicholas Lansman attempted to make before being defeated by John Humphrys’ bluster.


Despite the government making it clear that it is not interested in introducing default filtering for pornographic websites in a response to Index on Censorship and other civil liberties groups in January, Claire Perry remains insistent that this is what is required. Her scaremongering report (“the whole history of human sexual perversion is only a few clicks away”) calls for network level “opt-in” to force ISPs to provide customers with a “clean internet feed as standard”. In other words, Perry would like the internet to be censored for everyone; in order to access “adult content”, customers would have to choose to receive it.

The first problem with this is – who decides what is adult content? The classification of pornography is a subjective issue: one man’s work of art is another man’s history of sexual perversion. All filtering systems will censor some aspects of culture as pornography. The researcher Seth Finkelstein was the first to decrypt blacklists of pornographic material back in 1995  and found that feminism, gay rights and sex education were all swept up by puritanical filters. It is not possible to filter pornography without interfering with our right to freedom of expression and our access to information.

The second problem is – that Perry and her supporters are calling for the censorship of legal material. This would set a dangerous precedent for censoring any material that we might personally find distasteful or offensive.

And the third problem is an issue that faces the high court as much as any parent who would like the responsibility for monitoring their children’s access to content taken out of their hands. If, as Perry’s report claims, children are now more “tech savvy” than their parents and know how to circumvent device filters, then they will find their way past network filters too.

The blunt tool of high court injunctions and crude filters can only offer limited protection – whether for copyright holders or anxious parents – at the high price of our access to information .

Jo Glanville is editor of Index on Censorship magazine

Jo Glanville

3 responses to “Whether it’s porn or piracy, ISPs should not be forced to police the internet”

  1. […] Perry’s arguments about the harms of pornography have gone unsupported by unbiased data or clinical studies. Her report (“the whole history of human sexual perversion is only a few clicks away”) is referred to on anti-censorship sites as “scaremongering.” […]

  2. Robert says:

    ISPs should have that option for parents to filter adult content at a network level.

    This is not available through our ISP so I’ve gone to the router level to filter adult content sites for our home network.

  3. […] Like anti-porn pundits in America, Perry’s arguments about the harms of pornography have gone unsupported by unbiased data or clinical studies. Her report (“the whole history of human sexual perversion is only a few clicks away”) is referred to on anti-censorship sites as “scaremongering.” […]