There's the rub

Two (more) reasons Britain’s porn-filtering policy is a waste of everybody’s time

August 13, 2013
August 13, 2013

There are many reasons a porn-filtering system is a terrible idea. Among other things, it is censorious, it doesn’t solve the problem of illegal material, it provides a false sense of security to parents, and it is susceptible to overreaching. But perhaps most important is that it’s not in fact very good at knowing what is porn and what isn’t; and it’s too easy to circumvent. Two bits of news from the past few days serve as wonderful examples.

The first comes from Mark Forsyth, an author. While working at the British Library in London last week, Forsyth googled “Hamlet MIT.” He needed to look up a quote and knew that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had put the entire works of Shakespeare online. But the library’s filtering system would not let him see it due to “violent content.”

The filtering system also blocked another reader from accessing Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King on Project Gutenberg. In a statement, the British Library explained that “in our public areas where there are regular visits by school children, we filter certain online content, such as pornography and gambling websites.” No mention of canonical literature.

The British Library’s filtering system for its public Wi-Fi is like any filtering system: broad, blunt and incapable of nuance. A public filtering system, designed to cover the entire online population of Great Britain, is unlikely to be much more subtle in its approach. And it’s a big time-waster for those who want to opt out of the filters. Already, smartphone users in the UK have to submit details like a driver’s license or passport to internet service providers to get access to “adult” content. Under the new system, for broadband, users would have to get the account holder’s permission to change the settings.

The second bit of news came today, and has to do with getting around filters. TorrentFreak reported this morning that The Pirate Browser—a web browser for routing traffic around filtering systems, which was released on Aug. 10 by The Pirate Bay, a file-sharing website—has already had over 100,000 downloads worldwide. The browser is meant to help users get around all sorts of censored sites in countries that include Iran, North Korea, Belgium, Finland and Denmark. That includes everything from porn to torrent sites (which serve up links to pirated content) to Facebook.

Getting around filters has generally required a level, however low, of computer savvy. With a browser that does all the hard work, even that is no longer an obstacle. Of course, the British government may ban or block the use of the software. And then someone will find a way around that.

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