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UK private members bill designed to censor pornography on the internet

It is increasingly clear that the most effective control over the internet will come from controlling the chokepoints – the registrars and the ISPs – rather than the users. When the US wants to take down a foreign website it goes to Verisign and simply gets all traffic directed to its own ‘seized’ page. This is what happened with bodog.com. When the UK government wants to monitor its citizens, it goes to the ISPs and tells them that they must do so. This is the meat of the proposed new UK monitoring bill. When Apple wanted to weaken the new Flashback botnet, it went to the Russian registrar Reggi.ru to close down a C&C server (ironically a ‘friendly’ sinkhole server controlled by the botnet discover, Dr Web). In the US, a voluntary arrangement between leading ISPs and the entertainment industry last summer effectively introduced a six-strike graduated response against ‘infringing’ users.

Now a new private members bill introduced in the UK House of Lords proposes pornography censorship by the ISPs. A private members bill is legislation proposed by individual members rather than via the government itself. They rarely get enacted because there is usually no government time set aside for them; and they are easily ‘talked out’ in their early stages. Nevertheless, they frequently put down a marker of concern that is sometimes taken up by a government-sponsored bill introduced at a later date.

The new bill, proposed by Baroness Howe of Ildicote, is the Online Safety Act, 2012. Its purpose is to “Make provision about the promotion of online safety; to require internet service providers and mobile phone operators to provide a service that excludes pornographic images; and to require electronic device manufacturers to provide a means of filtering content.”

The detail shows that pornography will be an ‘opt-in’ service; that is, unless the user (aged 18 or over) informs the ISP of of his or her consent to receive uncensored content, pornographic content will be automatically filtered out by the ISP. How this differs from opting out of the censorship is a matter of semantics; but opt-out mechanisms are contrary to EU policy. However, the additional provision for automatic filtering if the website in question does not include an age-verification process would suggest that this is, in reality, an opt-out (of filtering) rather than an opt-in (to pornography) bill.

Nevertheless, there can be little objection to the purpose of the bill by civil liberties groups. It is the precedent set for future censorship that will be most concerning. For now, ISPs are largely against the bill, preferring self-regulation between the ISP and the customer to legal requirement. The relevant government ministry, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, is also believed to currently prefer self-regulation to legal regulation.

The first reading of the bill, a formality, took place on March 28. The second reading – the general debate on all aspects of the bill – is yet to be scheduled. 

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