Pat Pilcher: Something very wrong in the UK

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A new UK law will require ISPs to block objectionable content by default. But will it work? Photo / Thinkstock
A new UK law will require ISPs to block objectionable content by default. But will it work? Photo / Thinkstock

Mention the UK and most of us imagine fish and chips or a decent pint rather than the Orwellian levels of online censorship about to be imposed on Brits at the end of 2013.

A new law will require ISPs block objectionable online content by default. Although there is an option to opt-out, anyone wanting the filter removed will need to contact their ISP to ask that it be switched off.

Censorship proponents argue that the filter isn't a bad thing - keeping ones family safe from dodgy online content can only be a good thing right? The filter can also be turned off - even if that does mean an embarrassing call to your ISP.

Sadly it just isn't that simple. Although there's lots of examples of objectionable online content, the term objectionable is so hopelessly broad that it could encompass all manner of seemingly harmless content. Already reports are surfacing that the filter will block way more content than just the adult content that was originally talked up by the UK government.

Worse still, the arbiter of what is objectionable appears to be the UK government, which scarily has the potential for some nightmarish Orwellian form of social control.

This may all sound like the stuff of nutty conspiracy theories, but the reality is that it wouldn't be too much of a reach for the Brit government to legislate for the removal of the "opt-out" component of the filter, or to deem anti-government websites as objectionable.

While there is little disagreement that some truly nasty stuff exists online, and that most people would rather they and their families were not exposed to it, there is another line of argument that this form of censorship is a slippery slope and that one of the key strengths of the internet is its ability to provide unrestricted access information.

The political wisdom of online censorship is also questionable given the global outcry against Prism as the NSA's information gathering shenanigans came to light. Voters have long memories and a fondness for their freedoms. Will this be reflected in the next UK general elections? Already 10,000 outraged Brits have written to their MPs demanding the issue be debated. Clearly this isn't going away any time soon.

Political and societal considerations aside, the UK government have also created an un-winnable scenario given the speed of technology compared to the near glacial pace of politics and public sector bureaucracies.

Others argue that history is already repeating. When the UK government blocked access to torrent search sites such as the Piratebay, a raft of sites sprang up offering workaround access. The UK government was forced into the digital equivalent of whack-a-mole, blocking sites as even more popped up. So far the battle appears to have been a losing one for them, as it is still pretty easy to bypass the UK government's anti-pirate blockade.

Making matters worse for an already beleaguered UK government, a new service has been launched called Immunicity which is designed to bypass the censorship filters (including the torrent search sites blocked in the UK).

Immunicity works by routing blocked sites over its own servers. It also works in any country, not just the UK and is free. It isn't terribly difficult to imagine that Immunicity won't be the only service to bypass censorship filters which begs the question be asked, how well prepared is the government to deal with a proliferation of Immunicity-like offerings that could quickly render online censorship useless?

If a losing battle in a digital arms race wasn't enough, some UK ISPs are also refusing to implement the filters, with UK ISP, Andrew and Arnold, posting this in a press statement "Sorry, for a censored internet you will have to pick a different ISP or move to North Korea," in a press statement.

Even though few would argue that much of what is deemed objectionable is unsuitable for family viewing, using filters to censor content is also likely to only lead to a raft of new and unanticipated problems such as connection slow-downs, and the rise of unofficial "black" data networks as well as the increased use encryption, making it next to impossible to track criminals and terrorists. The question a growing number of people are already asking however is where will it all end?

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