The Slippery Slope of Censorship

I‘ve written several articles recently about why Internet Censorship does not work and why implementing even the most basic of national filters is a bad idea. I’ve pointed to examples such as China and Australia as proof that these schemes usually suffer from ‘mission creep’ and end up censoring material that falls outside of the original scope. 

Now in the UK, we have the beginnings of another example.

 

 

The Motion Picture Association (MPA) has applied to a UK court for an injunction requiring British Telecom (BT) to add the site Newzbin to their Cleanfeed filter. BT appears to be fighting against this, but we can’t expect them to fight every similar action on our behalf.  

Cleanfeed exists for one purpose – to censor online child abuse material. 

No censorship is good, but most people would agree that blocking this type of material is a reasonable compromise. Unfortunately, once the filtering technology is in place it becomes open to abuse by any with the power to do so. 

 

We don’t currently know exactly which sites are filtered by Cleanfeed, but it is updated using the Internet Watch Foundations (secret) blacklist. 

  

The site the MPA want filtered contains ‘copyright infringing’ material, but does not include child abuse material. The request to have this site blocked is therefore, in my view, an attempt to abuse the technology available. It was implemented to block child-abuse material, and in the face of opposition was defended as such. 

If there had been any scope given to the blocking of other material, you can be sure that the filter would have been more staunchly opposed. Because of the nature of the content being blocked, it was very difficult to oppose the implementation without being branded as pro-paedophile.  

 

Unfortunately, the concerns of those who were ignored may now be being justified. An attempt has been made by the MPA to use the technology for something that falls far outside the original project brief. If this is allowed to happen it will open the floodgates and be of detriment to us all.

Once a precedent has been set that Cleanfeed (and similar technologies) can legally be used in this way, it becomes very difficult to draw a definite line of what does and does not qualify for blocking. 

Today it’s a site hosting copyright infringing material, tomorrow it could be another type of site. The media industry (amongst others) are infamous for ‘trying their luck’ with copyright claims, sending takedown notices for material that does not necessarily infringe copyright.

 

 

Although not media related, a good example is that of the dispute between BSD developer Theo De Raadt and Theos Software Corporation. TSC hired a lawyer to try and take control of theos.com from Mr De Raadt, despite the fact that theos.com was registered some 10 months before TSC even appeared on the Internet. Not to mention that they opted to wait 3 years before claiming that theos.com infringed their Trademark! Mr De Raadt was able to keep his address, but it’s likely many people simply would not have known how to fight such a claim.

Now imagine that TSC operated in the UK and managed to convince a court that the site was infringing on their Copyright and/or Trademark. As theos.com isn’t hosted in the UK it couldn’t be ‘taken down’ and so an injunction similar to that the MPA are seeking could be brought. The next thing you know, UK users are unable to view theos.com because some company didn’t like the web address in use!

 

It’s easy to say that the system will be fine if we maintain strict controls over what can and cannot be blocked, but that’s not the reality of this situation. We already have fairly strict controls over what can and cannot be added to Cleanfeed, if the MPA’s injunction is granted it will signify a huge change to those very controls.

Even if we assume all companies will behave appropriately, the spotted history of the IWF shows exactly what can happen when organisations become over-enthusiastic and implement bad filtering rules. If a few organisations are unable to co-ordinate well enough to avoid issues like the accidental blocking of the Internet Archive, how is the system going to cope when uncountable organisations start trying to request the blocking of content?

 

 

Easily Circumvented

 

This whole argument misses a poignant point anyway, Cleanfeed only currently filters the World Wide Web. There are many other Internets available and most contain material that probably infringes copyright. By taking this action, the MPA are not only wasting their own time and money, but are also wasting BT’s (which logic dictates will be paid for by their customers).

Every file that they manage to make available on the WWW will only appear on somewhere like Usenet or the PeerToPeer networks, which are far harder to censor. Overly aggressive filtering may lead to average users taking an interest in Freenet where it’s nigh on impossible to filter anything or to even take the material down.

Those that don’t wish to go to that extent will probably learn quite quickly that simply connecting via a non-UK proxy will be sufficient to bypass the filter.

Worse, if the MPA are successful they will help allow a more comprehensive filtering platform on the WWW which will impact on almost every UK Internet User. As much as we can talk about trust, the experiences of Australian users show that no-one can be trusted when blacklists are kept secret;

A filter originally planned to bar access to Child-abuse material and other extremely illegal activities was found to also be barring access to;

  • A Queensland Dentist
  • A Kennel Operator
  • A Tuckshop
  • A Photographers website (all images rated PG by the Australian Rating Board)
  • A site relating to Euthanasia
  • An Encyclopedia Dramatica article titled ‘Aboriginal’

 

 

Take Action

 

Sadly it’s probably too late to do very much about the MPA case, it’s down to the court to decide. Whatever is decided however, I’d expect the losing party will seek leave to appeal.

As a community, UK Internet Users need to make their voice heard on this issue. We don’t want our Internet censored in any way, and if the original brief of Cleanfeed cannot be adhered to then perhaps it would be better to scrap the whole system (many other countries manage without a similar filter, and the ‘benefits’ of such a filter are often disputed).

Write to your MP today, explain to him that as a free democracy we cannot allow censorship of the Internet at the behest of private organisations. Filtering Child abuse material is a compromise most will accept, but that must be all that is blocked. It’s a slippery slope that we really don’t want to step on to.

 

 

The Future

We’ve no idea what the future will hold, BT may successfully defend the action and prevent the injunction. One things for sure, however, whoever wins we can probably expect many more attempts to have sites blocked for ‘infringing copyright’.

If this becomes acceptable in the eyes of the Courts, our right to free speech becomes far more vulnerable. So far we’ve looked at how filtering technology can be circumvented in a very general sense, partially because of the nature of the content blocked by Cleanfeed (I’d not want to advise people on how to access that content). The moment Cleanfeed is permitted to filter less reprehensible content, it loses any moral ground it may currently have and the reason for withholding specific circumvention information will be null and void.

Hopefully others will join me in publishing guides to accessing a site which has been filtered by Cleanfeed (in this case it’ll probably be Newzbin!). What happens after that will be a true indicator of this country’s stance on censorship;

 

The fact people can bypass it will be ignored

OR

The system will be scrapped

OR

Efforts will be made to further censor by attempting to block the methods of circumvention.

 

The final option is the beginning of a very slippery slope, ending in a system like that seen in China. Surely no-one can truly want that to happen in their own country?

 

 
 Share