Pushed by Baroness Benjamin (she of Playschool fame), the Liberal Democrat 2013 Conference debated a motion to require censorship of the Internet by default on all Internet capable devices, with an explicit requirement to opt-out. The filter is supposed to prevent access to porn, but since computers are bad at identifying what is porn, and what is, for example, an LGBT news site, or a breast feeding advocacy site, these things have a tendency to block all sorts of other sites too. They block resource sites, sex education sites, political satire, blogs, equality campaigns and all sorts of things that it is vital to maintain free and open access to.
I put in a card to speak an, for the first time at a federal conference, I was called! Here is what I said:
Conference, I was recently in Plymouth, and being not overly familiar with it, I asked the Siri assistant on my iPhone for driving directions from one side of town to the other.
It tried to send me via Warsaw, in Poland.
Automatic systems behave like this because they don’t know enough to realise when they’re doing something obviously ridiculous. They just do it anyway.
This is the folly of automatic censorship on the Internet. There is so much stuff out there that you can’t possibly do it all by hand; you have to use automated systems and, like my iPhone’s bad driving directions, they get it wrong.
As an equality campaigner I have seen first hand the effects of Internet censorship. I have been frustrated when trying to access LGBT news sites, or reading blogs of people campaigning for quality, sex education, breast feeding, safer working conditions for those involved in sex work, drugs information, and so on.
I have even been disallowed access to my own blog, which, by the way, was shortlisted for a Lib Dem Voice award this year, because, apparently, it contains “adult content”.
Perhaps campaigning for equal rights for vulnerable and abused minorities is “adult content”, but so-called porn filters shouldn’t be blocking it.
While I do not doubt the intentions of those behind this motion, and the amendment, I do doubt the technical literacy they represent, or rather the lack of it. In seeking to “protect children from porn”, automated filters will block political campaigns, satire, support sites for victims of homophobic bullying, sexual abuse, eating disorders, breast feeding campaigners and the blogs of members of this party.
This motion, amended or not, is unfit for purpose. Conference, send it back so that it can be reexamined with the full participation of minority groups and young people, those affected by it. If you don’t send it back, then please vote it down. It’s profoundly illiberal and it will cause real harm to the things we value.
There is already a requirement of this sort for mobile phone companies; Three were recently found to be blocking political blogs as “adult”. They confirmed this was no technical error, just a question of definitions: to their (Chinese!) censorship, political discourse IS a restricted topic which should be filtered.
I am not a Lib Dem, but I am delighted the motion was defeated, and resoundingly so; this nonsense should not be contemplated, let alone mandated. If anything, the government’s role should be to restrict and regulate the imposition of rioters, to stop disturbing moves like Three’s, not to force it on more of us!
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