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British Internet Pornography Plan Criticized As 'Default Censorship'

British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a speech on July 22 at a children's charity in London, called for serious measures aimed at protecting children from pornographic content on the Internet and at cracking down on so-called extreme pornography -- including images of child pornography and violence against women.

But the steps Cameron is calling for have raised the concerns of free-speech advocates who say they establish a practice of "default censorship" that could have dangerous consequences.

What is Cameron proposing?

In his speech, Cameron outlined two problems: curtailing access to images of violence and child abuse on the Internet and preventing the exposure of children to sexual images that are "distorting their view of sex and relationships."

"Children can’t go into shops or the cinema and buy things meant for adults or have adult experiences -- we rightly regulate to protect them," Cameron said. "But when it comes to the Internet, in the balance between freedom and responsibility, we have neglected our responsibility to our children. My argument is that the Internet is not a sideline to 'real life' or an escape from 'real life'; it is real life."

Cameron's proposals to crackdown on already illegal material in the so-called dark Internet and to improve international cooperation in the fight against pedophilia have been widely applauded.

But the measures he is advocating to restrict children's access to pornography are much more controversial.
British Prime Minister David Cameron (left) and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev: Having a laugh over Internet freedoms?
British Prime Minister David Cameron (left) and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev: Having a laugh over Internet freedoms?

Cameron announced that the government is working with Britain's four main Internet providers to create "family-friendly filters" that will automatically block access to pornography unless the customer requests that they be turned off.

He said that by the end of next year, Internet providers will contact all of the nearly 19 million households with Internet connections and ask them if they want the "family-friendly filters." New customers will have the filters automatically unless they choose to disable them.

Cameron also proposed working with search engines to create a "black list" of Internet search terms and to take measures to prevent search engines from being used to locate illegal images of violence and pedophilia.

"So I have a very clear message for Google, Bing, Yahoo, and the rest: You have a duty to act on this, and it is a moral duty," Cameron said. "I simply don’t accept the argument that some of these companies have used to say that these searches should be allowed because of freedom of speech. So I have called for a progress report in Downing Street in October, with the search engines coming in to update me."

If he is not satisfied with that meeting in October, Cameron threatened "legislative options" to "force action."

What are some of the objections to Cameron's proposals?

Free-speech advocates are concerned about the British government's proposals for several reasons. They are concerned that it is difficult or impossible to define what "pornography" is and so they are concerned that the filters will block legitimate information.

In addition, says Padraig Reidy, a senior writer with the NGO Index on Censorship, the filtering proposal would make censorship, rather than access, the "default" situation in Britain. "It simply sets up the idea of censorship as a de facto thing that we accept as the default," Reidy says.

Columnist Nick Cohen wrote in "The Spectator" magazine that the recent disclosures about government surveillance of Internet activities with the cooperation of service providers shows that there are no guarantees that information about an individual's desire to access pornography will remain private.

There are also disagreements over whether or not the proposals will help parents protect children from harmful content. What are the arguments?

In his speech, Cameron said there iwas a "contract between parents and the state" that obligates the state to help parents raise and protect their children. "When it comes to Internet pornography, parents have been left too much on their own," the prime minister said. "I am determined to put that right."

But Padraig Reidy says Cameron's proposals could actually undermine the ability of parents to protect their children by creating a false sense of security.

"Default filters won't pick up everything, and I think there is a real concern that a default filter just means that parents might think, 'Well, everything is safe now on the web -- I don't have to worry about what my children are looking at,'" Reidy says. "The only real way you can be sure that your children are really getting the most out of the web is to really engage with what they are viewing."

Are there also concerns about what kind of precedent this will set?

Activists like Reidy, who work on free-speech issues around the world, say they are worried about the example Britain could be setting for authoritarian regimes that they say often use pretexts such as combating extremism or pornography for blocking political speech.

"We saw in 2011 during the riots in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom when David Cameron proposed blocking Twitter and Blackberry Messenger, the Chinese government and Chinese state media leapt on this and said, 'This is entirely what the Chinese do, and this is the correct thing to do and you understand now why we have to do this sometimes when we have trouble,'" Reidy says.

Reidy adds that a British policy of "default censorship" of the Internet could send a similar signal that "a certain level of censorship is permissible."

"It does weaken the position a bit for Western countries -- the United Kingdom, the European Union -- to talk about censorship and to criticize censorship when we are talking ourselves about introducing a level of censorship like this," Reidy says.
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