Quilliam’s Head of Research Ghaffar Hussain discusses controversial Government plans to enable automatic filters for online pornography.

David Cameron raised alarm in July last year when he announced that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would be introducing porn filters.

This meant that customers would either have porn filters automatically switched on when they subscribed to an internet broadband service, or they would be offered a choice of whether to switch the filter on or off once the service commenced.

In a not-so-rare show of coalition disunity, these measures were roundly criticised by members of the Lib Dems and others, being deemed too crude and inappropriate as a means to deal with the issue of children accessing hardcore pornography.

Events since July last year seem to have vindicated the scepticism. According to Lib Dem president Tim Farron, quoted in the Independent, “essential sites on sexual health, gender and sexuality, domestic violence and LGBT rights are being blocked”.
He has also said porn filters were ineffective and illiberal whilst giving parents a false sense of security.

There are a number of problems with the porn filter system as it exists today. Firstly, it relies on the assumption that porn can only be consumed via static websites, when in reality porn can, and frequently, is shared on social media and networking sites, such as Twitter, Paltalk etc.

Such sites rely on user-generated content and it is virtually impossible to make sure they remain free of pornographic content at all times. Other sites that rely on file sharing are even more difficult to police.

Secondly, determined users can circumvent existing filters anyway. In fact, Chrome offers an aptly named browser extension called ‘Go Away Cameron’, which can allows user to circumvent existing porn filters. Circumvention aside, many porn sites are still available even when the filters turned on, thus, they are simply not sophisticated enough to do the job they claim to do.

Thirdly, since these filters rely on content filtering, they also filter out educational websites which young people should, and need to be able to access.

Thus, educational websites that teach about safe sex and discuss sexuality and gender are also being affected by these filters. This is because many of these educational sites use the same keywords as porn sites and the filters are not sophisticated enough to distinguish.

Much more controversially, these filters have also blocked LGBT sites, including the Lib Dems own LGBT site. This has caused alarm in the LGBT community, especially since the London Friend, one of the oldest LGBT charities in the UK, was also blocked.

Clearly, young people accessing and consuming hardcore and age inappropriate porn is a problem and, with evidence suggesting that this is a rising trend, something should be done about it.

However, crude and illiberal filters imposed by governments are not the solution. There is nothing wrong with broadband internet services coming with a range of child friendly filters that parents and guardians can switch on and off at will.

The real solution lies in parents, teachers and others working with young people to teach them about sexual health and relationships as well as respect for members of the opposite sex. Learning to have a healthy attitude toward sex and approaching intimacy with another person with sensitivity and empathy would make the difference.

Hence, the emphasis should be on education, advice and support rather than crude and ineffective porn filters.

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