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UK acts on kids addicted to online porn

Anti-porn filters would become the broadband default. Smut consumers would need to contact ISPs to “opt-in.”

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The British government is considering imposing anti-porn filters on home broadband customers, and mandating a “snoopers’ charter” of online record keeping. Anyone wanting to view adult content would have to contact ISPs to “opt in.” Moms, among others, are displeased. (Chris Hondros/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON, UK — If you were to view the issue of online pornography as a conflict — and many people do — it’s fair to say that Britain has just gone to defcon-4, reviewing its defenses and preparing for further action.

But while it readies an arsenal of anti-porn weaponry, there are mounting concerns that an escalation of hostilities will result in widespread collateral damage. This, in turn has raised questions over why the UK has suddenly decided to set its sights on the online sex industry.

Earlier this month, the British government announced it was considering imposing anti-porn filters as default on home broadband customers. Under the scheme, customers wanting to view adult content would have to contact their internet service providers and “opt in.”

The move follows mounting concern over the “sexualization” of children and a recent government study that claimed three out of four British children have unsupervised internet access while some, potentially as young as 11, are becoming addicted to online porn.

“Our inquiry found that many children are easily accessing internet pornography as well as other websites showing extreme violence or promoting self-harm and anorexia,” said Conservative lawmaker Claire Perry, the driving force behind porn filter demands. “This is hugely worrying.”

Worrying indeed. And there are few people in power, opposition or out in the real world who would oppose moves to shelter young people from harmful online material or content aimed strictly at adult audiences.

But by proposing “opt-in” measures that put content filtering in the hands of service providers, the government has failed to win universal praise. Not only could this hurt freedom of speech, say critics, but it could actually lead to children being put in harm’s way.

Campaigners, such as the Open Rights Group, point to overly zealous adult content filters that have been in place as a default for several years on some UK mobile phone networks. These have been found to bar some non-porn websites, effectively silencing voices that would otherwise be part of healthy online debate.

“We found that there is quite widespread over-blocking which means, either by mistake or because the catchment is so wide, many legitimate sites are caught by the filters,” ORG campaigner Peter Bradwell told GlobalPost.

“When you add in the lack of transparency over what is blocked and why, and problems over reporting mistakes, this adds up to what is essentially censorship.”

The measures have also drawn criticism from Mumsnet, a leading online parenting forum, which joined computer experts in pointing out serious flaws in such a system. Filters, they say, can be easily sidestepped both by rapidly-reacting sex sites and tech-savvy kids whose determination to defy restrictions may actually expose them to even darker areas of the web.

While Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged wide consultation before legislating such practices, “opt-in” is already on its way. The four biggest names in the UK’s $4.7 billion-a-year internet service industry have voluntarily pledged to make porn an “active choice” for new subscribers from October this year.

All this comes in addition to proposed new UK legislation that will require service providers and social networks to intercept and store communications data just in case it is needed for subsequent investigations.

Says ORG’s Bradwell, the intercept legislation, or “snooperscharter” as it has been labeled, coupled with the proposed unsophisticated porn filters could lead to service providers becoming “choke points” for control over the information people are able to receive.

He said that while there was scope for broad surveillance measures that “appreciate there are boundaries” to the control service providers should be expected to exert over customers, any breach of these limits puts freedom of expression and privacy at risk.

So where did this sudden assault on the internet’s less salubrious side come from?

In the UK it appears to have been inspired by another government report, this time a 2011 Department of Education study into the “commercialization and sexualization” of children.

Among recommendations made in the so-called BaileyReview, which was a response to 2010 election pledges by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative political parties that make up the current coalition government, was that parents be able to block out adult material on the web.

The internet, the report concluded, is part of a “sexualized wallpaper” — along with provocative music videos, magazines, newspapers, advertisements, age-inappropriate child clothing and television – that is having a detrimental effect on youngsters.

Child sexualization is certainly a problem in modern British society, says Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the U.K.’s University of Kent, but blaming the internet is not necessarily the answer.

“What happens is the adult world tends to, in a confused way, interpret children’s behavior in terms of adult sexual norms,” he told GlobalPost.

“In the U.K. we have a situation where you have five-year-old children expelled from nursery for sexual harassment. In my generation that would be called playing doctors and nurses and no one would have given it a defined sexual connotation.”

Furedi said that while there was a problem with some grown-ups “losing sight of the boundaries” that separate child and adult behavior — as when parents dress their children in inappropriate clothing — some so-called “sexualization” is merely a manifestation of parental anxiety.

To this end, he said, the government’s attempts to use this to justify a clampdown on the internet amounted to political window dressing: a low cost measure that will look good to some voters, but won’t actually have any long term impact on the problem being addressed.

“We call it a ‘valence issue.’ It’s something that few people are going to question or criticize, but it’s really a rhetorical gesture. It’s impression-management more than anything else.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/united-kingdom/120518/uk-children-porn-censorship-smut-filter