Thursday, 22 November 2012

"Balkanising the Internet"

The views of Google, the internet search giant, and the British Government look to become increasingly opposed in oncoming weeks as David Cameron, the Prime Minister, is expected to formally announce the proposals for his long-awaited internet pornography filter. Shortly after Google's appearance before the Public Accounts Committee confirmed that the company had been using different national jurisdictions to ensure a much lighter rate of tax, its chairman and former CEO, Eric Schmidt, spoke out to warn of the possibility of a "balkanised" internet should censorship be allowed to proliferate. Delivering a speech at the RAND Corporation's Politics Aside event, Schmidt took Iran as an example of the dangers of such a move, claiming that it had limited the country to a "stone age" level of technology. Government policy makers would be wise to heed this advice, as early reports have suggested that the filter will automatically block all unapproved content from public access.

According to a new report from the Daily Mail, the service will be made available to all users of newly purchased computers in the UK upon their first "log-in"; this would at first appear to indicate that it could take the form of a piece of local software. If so, then this recent announcement would in fact mark a significant step-down from previous suggestions, implying that the future responsibility for filtering data would rest with software on the user's computer rather than with the Internet Service Provider (ISP).

This would be a welcome move, with many writers on both sides of the political spectrum strongly opposing content filtering by ISP, arguing that a filter of this kind would essentially represent the creation of a censored internet in which the company that provides the connection takes on all responsibility for ensuring the "safety" of the data transmitted. The establishment of such a filter in the first place would certainly be very tricky and prone to error: the internet contains such a vast quantity of data that it would seem inevitable that some pornographic sites might slip through the net and go unblocked, and that other non-offensive sites, such as those offering sexual health advice, might be inadvertently banned by the system (many readers will no doubt remember the controversial blacklisting in 2008 of a Wikipedia page on the band The Scorpions by the Internet Watch Foundation, which serves as an example of how easily such a mistake can be made). Free-speech commentators have also spoken of the potential for a "slippery slope" scenario, with the Open Rights Group, a pressure group, warning that future governments would gain the ability to instantly censor further information without having to directly inform the public.

I am however inclined to suggest that the prospect of a client-based solution (based within individual computers rather than under the control of ISPs) is extremely unlikely. All descriptions that have emerged so far have been painfully imprecise, and the Mail's account is also fairly vague, failing to mention any specific software that might come pre-installed on users computers. It does however seem to indicate that content blocking might also be available to current subscribers of ISPs, making it unfortunately much less likely that the filtering would involve the optional installation of new software. Such software would of course also be very difficult and expensive to produce, would not be pre-installed on machines built by users themselves and would be unlikely to work on non-standard systems such as Ubuntu and the rest of its Linux brethren. The future, it seems, is destined to involve the feared ISP-level censorship.