This week the news media here (and across the world, I gather) have been awash with stories about the royal birth.
While I wish young Prince George and his extended family all the very best, it does mean that an announcement on Monday by British Prime Minister David Cameron hasn't attracted the attention (or scrutiny) it deserves.
That is the decision to force all UK internet users to "opt in" if they want to access adult content, otherwise known as pornography, on their computer.
While the intentions behind this move are obviously worthy - to protect children from accidentally stumbling across inappropriate content - I have severe reservations about how it will work in practice. In particular, as it is almost impossible to define what constitutes pornography, I expect internet service providers to adopt a cautious approach and block anything where there is any room for doubt.
The consequence may well be that if you don't opt in, you will end up with access to little more than half the internet. It is, for example, quite easy to imagine that my forum at www.mywriterscircle.com will end up on the "blocked" list. Although we do not tolerate extreme content of any type, we do not automatically block the use of strong language or moderately explicit sexual content.
As for websites dealing with relationships, sexual health, breast cancer, and so on, the chances of many being wrongly blocked by the censorware that will do this job (it being too much for human beings alone) are very high.
There is also the worrying possibility that commercial websites will attempt to use this to have rivals blocked. This could even happen with forums such as my own. It would be very easy, for example, for a malicious individual to attach a pornographic image to an old forum post and then report to the authorities that the site was publishing adult images and should be blocked. The Law of Unintended Consequences will undoubtedly rear its head in many forms, of which this will be just one.
As a heavy internet user myself, I therefore find myself in the bizarre position where I will have no choice but to 'opt in' to access pornography if I am asked by my ISP. I have no wish to view the objectionable material the government is so concerned about, but otherwise the risk of having content I want and need to access blocked will be far too high. I presume that as a result I will probably be placed on some "watch list" or other. I resent my government forcing me into a position where I am in effect being treated as a criminal, simply because I don't want my internet access subject to wholesale censorship.
I just hope that everyone in Britain (and anywhere else such a policy may be under consideration) fully understands the implications of this move, and they think very carefully before accepting it. It seems ridiculous to advise people to "opt in" to access porn sites even if they don't want to, but otherwise you risk having hordes of perfectly legitimate websites blocked, while many objectionable sites are likely to be misclassified and remain accessible.
It's not just me who thinks this, either. Last year the author Cory Doctorow wrote a lengthy article about this subject for the Guardian newspaper, which is partly reproduced on his Tumblr blog. He wrote:
Consider a hypothetical internet of a mere 20bn documents that is comprised one half “adult" content, and one half “child-safe" content. A 1% misclassification rate applied to 20bn documents means 200m documents will be misclassified. That’s 100m legitimate documents that would be blocked by the government because of human error, and 100m adult documents that the filter does not touch and that any schoolkid can find.
In practice, the misclassification rate is much, much worse. It’s hard to get a sense of the total scale of misclassification by censorware because these companies treat their blacklists as trade secrets, so it’s impossible to scrutinise their work and discover whether they’re exercising due care.
I would add to this that the censorship will be applied by the ISPs themselves. They will have no financial incentive to do this efficiently or effectively - rather, it will be a gigantic millstone around their necks. I expect vast numbers of sites to be misclassified, and webmasters to be queueing up to launch appeals regarding bans. I shan't be at all surprised if at some point I am among them.
And equally, anyone who thinks that passively accepting this censorship will ensure that they and their children never see a racy website again is being dangerously complacent. As Cory Doctorow says in his article, even if they achieve a (frankly highly implausible) misclassification rate of just 1%, that would still leave 100 million legitimate sites blocked and 100 million objectionable ones remaining accessible. And, of course, millions more pages are being added to the web every day.
So far as protecting children is concerned, a much better option, it seems to me, is to give them their own Windows account with filters to block adult content and monitor how they are using the net. This is quite simple in Windows 7 and (especially) with Windows Family Safety in Windows 8. I'm no expert on Macs, but I assume similar options must be available. This is surely far better than relying on ISPs to do the job in a one-size-fits-all fashion.
To sum up, if this misconceived piece of electioneering by David Cameron and his colleagues actually goes ahead, I do hope ISPs will make very clear to their customers the implications of accepting their across-the-board censorship and the risks that it entails. I hope they will make it easy for people who opt out initially to opt back in when they realise how seriously their internet access has been damaged. And I hope that a very high proportion of people "opt in" from the start, not because they want to see porn, but to send a very clear signal to the government that this type of swingeing censorship is not the right way forward so far as the internet is concerned.
I appreciate that this is a controversial topic and all comments are welcome, of course - please feel free to post them below.
UPDATE: If you agree with me that this ill-conceived initiative should be stopped in its tracks, please take a moment to sign this electronic petition by the Open Rights Group, which is open world-wide.
Photo by Perrimoon on Flickr, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.