Internet Porn Filters Coming To UK, But Critics Cry Web Censorship

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Kids Surfing the Internet
The U.K. government announced a "radical" plan to protect children online by providing tools to filter pornography and other inappropriate content.

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday once again took up his crusade to keep children safe online through tougher, more sophisticated Internet filters.

In an op-ed piece in the Daily Mail, the prime minister vowed a “radical” plan to help parents keep the Internet “untainted by the worries and complexities of adulthood” while their children are surfing the Web. Previous efforts by the U.K. government to mandate opt-in “filtered Internet feeds” that weed out pornography and other adult content have largely failed. The filters called for Britain’s top four Internet service providers to ask customers to specify whether or not they wanted to access inappropriate content, but the mandate only applied to customers taking out new contracts -- less than 5 percent of all Web-dwellers during any given quarter.

Acknowledging that the country needs a more sophisticated system, Cameron promised to enact a plan that would let parents “tailor exactly what their children can see.”

“Let me be clear right from the start,” Cameron wrote. “I am a father of three young children and I take this issue extremely seriously. To me, the fact that so many children have visited the darkest corners of the Internet is not just a matter of concern -- it is utterly appalling. A silent attack on innocence is under way in our country today and I am determined that we fight it with all we’ve got.”

Under the plan, he wrote, when customers turn on their new computers, they will be asked if there are children in the house. If there are, customers will be prompted through a set of filtering tools that block specific content for specific users. Parents will even be able to control their child’s access to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Users setting up the filters will be required to verify their age with their Internet service providers.

Cameron added that he has appointed Claire Perry, a Conservative member of Parliament, to be his adviser on stemming the sexualization and commercialization of childhood. “Claire is a passionate campaigner for Internet safety and mother of three,” he wrote. “Her job will be to see this through, to get Internet companies on board, to do what it takes to protect children and young people online.”

Internet filters have long been controversial, both with service providers and free-speech proponents, who say attempts to block so-called inappropriate content inevitably result in curtailing content from legitimate sources. Cameron acknowledged as much in his letter, recalling an anecdote from a parent who complained that her filter was blocking content from major TV broadcasters. Moreover, critics say, setting up and maintaining filters is often so complicated that many parents become fed up and simply turn them off.

Cameron’s latest efforts, meanwhile, have their share of critics in the British press. The Daily Telegraph’s Mic Wright derided as “creepy” the notion that a new computer will ask customers if there are children in the house. Wright added that Web filtering simply doesn’t work and criticized Cameron’s “cobbled-together” plan as a “worrying step towards letting the state decide what citizens should and shouldn't access online.”

Cameron has been accused of Internet censorship before. Last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the U.S.-based digital civil-rights group, blasted the prime minister for suggesting that he would restrict access to social media websites during riots or other civil unrest. In an emergency session of Parliament during the urban riots of August 2011, Cameron said, “When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.” EFF countered that the prime minister was “practically tripping over himself in his eagerness to sacrifice liberty for security.”

In his letter on Thursday, Cameron attempted to deflect some of those concerns by steering clear of the porn filter’s technical implications and focusing on the message of child safety. “All this comes back to something really important,” he concluded. “It’s not just about the Internet, or modern technology -- it’s about childhood.”

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