Opt out of opting in or out

Robert Henderson

The government has refused to make an automatic filter for pornography a legal requirement for ISPs with those wishing to access it having to opt out of the filters. They have not done this out of any concern for freedom of expression but  because the government has

“…now decided that this type of “opt-in” system “can create a false sense of security” because it does not screen out all harmful content.

There were also fears it could have “over-blocked” useful websites giving children access to “helpful information on sexual health or sexual identity”. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9746421/David-Cameron-rejects-automatic-block-on-porn-to-protect-children.html). 

But,  as with so many political issues these days, having said no to  legislation the government attempts to achieve the same ends  with a mixture of non-statutory demands backed by threats of legislation if the ISPs do not do what the government wants , viz:

 “However, the Government’s consultation response yesterday said it would instead rely on the voluntary co-operation of internet companies to strengthen controls on pornography.

It will now urge the companies to “actively encourage parents, whether they are new or existing customers, to switch on parental controls”. All users should be asked whether they have got children and parents would be guided through a process of installing anti-pornography filters.

Ministers will also ask the big internet service providers to make sure the person setting up controls is over 18.

Companies could face legislation in future if the Government feels they are not making enough of an effort to shield children from adult material. (Ibid)

If implemented, those non-statutory requests to ISPs could result in a database containing the opt in details of users which would have much the same effect and dangers as one arising from a statutory  requirement on ISPs.  There is also  a good  chance that whatever the ISPs do it will become a legal requirement in the foreseeable future because the children’s lobby is a powerful one.

What are the dangers of having computer users opt in for pornography?  The same general reasons why opting in or out of anything  desired by the government is dangerous. Once someone has to opt in or out of something they become part of an identifiable group against whom both state and private agencies may act .  Take one of the most frequently advocated opting in or out issues,   that of organ donation. It might seem harmless at first glance,  but you can bet your life that the information will eventually  be used to disadvantage those who opted out, for example, by refusing them medical treatment which was available to those who opted in (this could include non-transplant treatment) or  through the  releasing of  the information to insurers who might decide to charge more to someone on the register because those not on it  were deemed  to have a stronger sense of self-preservation.

In the case of pornography there are also two specific dangers.  First, there is no objective test for what is or is not pornography. Anything might be classified as such on a state whim. Think back to when cameras had film to be developed and recall all the cases of parents being accused of child abuse because they had taken photos of their young children in the bath, on the beach and so on.   Second, those who opted in would be identifiable. That could easily lead to such information becoming part of a CRB  check  which could disqualify  the person involved  from a large and  growing number of jobs or  render a person liable to police investigation if it is deemed that looking at pornography is indicative of a propensity towards committing sexual crimes.  Parents who opted in could find themselves scrutinised by the social services. Those wishing to adopt or foster  would almost certainly be deemed unsuitable if they opted in. The information  could also be used to blackmail people or ruin their careers.

All of those things and more could happen even if a computer user never looked at pornography but   had simply opted in because the filters were excluding sites which no rational person could consider pornographic.   Anyone with experience of  computers where filters are in operation will know how random they can be in what they both exclude and allow through.  It is also worth remembering that the evidence that an opt in had been activated would probably be permanently held by ISPs or on some other database.  Someone might have opted in when they were twenty but not opted in since they were 25 and still find it counting against them when they were 50.

Beyond pornography,  the  it could also be the thin end of the wedge for other  subjects on the Web to be made subject to opting in or out.  The most likely candidate today would be any website deemed to be  carrying “hate crime” material (anything non-pc would qualify) or even simply deemed  right-wing  by the oh so  politically correct British establishment  might require opting in.  But anything political could qualify.  Let the web be filtered for one thing of which the state disapproves and nothing is beyond such surveillance.

Permitting state ordered filtering of material on the web would be another stage in the ever tightening constriction exercised by the British state through the increasingly frequent criminal prosecution of those deemed to be resisting the totalitarian ideology that is political correctness (think of the cases which are almost daily reported in the mainstream media of someone arrested for alleged  racial or  homophobic  “hate speech/writing”).  Such control of the Web  needs to be resisted now before it becomes the norm.

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