The strange cyber-utopianism of the internet censor

The nice people at the New Statesman asked me to take part in a debate on web filtering with Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom this week. You can read the whole thing here. It’s certainly worth reading Leadsom’s arguments, as she does represent a significant body of opinion.

What I find interesting about the viewpoint of Leadsom and others is a curious faith in technology. It’s an odd take on  cyber-utopianism. While they clearly do not believe that technology is the ultimate liberating force, they still seem to believe that the best way to counter the great  wash of “inappropriate” [Leadsom’s word] content on the web is more technology. It’s as if they’re engaged in a pornographer versus guardian arms race, and have long lost sight of the actual aim.

Contrast this with what our China correspondent Dinah Gardner writes today on how the Communist Party, which is far more serious about censorship than Andrea Leadsom, handles the issue. While they do employ technology, they also employ thousands of people to monitor and delete content. They’ve realised that algorithms can only achieve so much.

Humans in the main resent authoritarian regimes because they treat us like we’re children: but when we are talking about actual children, then the debate changes slightly. We’ve pretty much accepted that we can put some limits on the rights of children — particularly on what information they can access. But the most developed filtering program in the world is no replacement for an interested adult taking care of a child’s education and entertainment.