While many people will have heard of the Great Firewall of China, also known as the Golden Shield, not many will know the UK has slowly been growing the capability to have the same thing and, in part, it is already functioning.
In 2004 the Internet Watch Foundation, IWF, a group which tries to stop child pornography worked with BT to put technological systems in place to try and stop child pornography being accessed from the UK, using technology called “CleanFeed”. This technology works by analysing all web traffic, at the ISP level, before getting to the user and then trying to block indecent images of children. The technology by blocking a known list of URLs.
By 2006 BT had fully installed CleanFeed and was claiming to be blocking 35,000 attempts a day to access child pornography. Though this high figure was disputed by some.
So far, so good, blocking access to peadohilic images is a good thing.
Nobody, not even the most liberal, would argue for the right to access child pornography, hence there was no objection to CleanFeed.
What Else is Banned?
But, what about banning access to other subject matters?
Racial Hatred and violent pornography are now subjects which the IWF, using Cleanfeed, have started to censor on the the internet. While this sounds reasonable, it may not always be.
The laws relating to “racial hatred” are a botched mess and were described by British Comedian Rowan Atkinson as “represent[ing] the relentless pursuit of the interests of a tiny minority of the population with, so far, no consideration or quarter being given to the concerns of the baffled majority”.
The laws relating to violent pornography are not as welcome as some may think.
The EU is already banning terrorist related sites which, again, sounds reasonable. Unfortunately the definition of “terrorism” is pretty felxible. The reality is that terrorism is any political group any given government doesn’t agree with. The PLO, IRA, PKK and even the Taliban, have all been supported, in our generation, by one Western government or another. But now they all are regarded, by the current UK government, as terrorist groups. So access and support to these organisations websites could see you a hero, or a couple of decads later whisked off to prison; it just depends on the timing.
If these concerns were not enough to raise eyebrows the UK Government is also working to ban internet discussions about suicide.
While not all of these subjects are currently blocked at a technical level, the technology and law is in place that could prevent access to all of these subjects at a moments notice.
To make matters worse, this blocking technology is not a fine scalpel, but more of a rusty spoon; in 2007 innocent Lycos users were unable to access sites as they were mistakenly blocked.
Censorship in the UK
The UK has an interesting history of censorship: From the heavy handed approach of preventing the actual voices of the IRA being broadcast (resulting in nothing more than bad dubbing) to the surreal banning of an episode of Star Trek until 2007. UK internet users are banned from reading about sucraloses written by Joseph Mercola. The UK Government also uses D Notices to stop certain “national security” articles being published in the UK. The D Notices are supposed to be used for military necessity, but are sometimes used for political expediency or other non-national security reason
With this history of censorship do we want the UK to have its own firewall? Do you trust the government more than they trust you?
The Expansion of CleanFeed
CleanFeed has already spread from just being on BT and stopping child pornography, to getting involved in political issues, such as “race hate” and spreading to all of the UK’s ISPs.
TJ McIntrye, lecturer in law at University College Dublin, has stated that:
Unlike formal legal mechanisms of censorship that ensure a degree of public accountability (for example: the obscenity trial of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which lowered the threshold of censorship) filtering systems failed to provide a list of prohibited sites, their criteria for designation, prior notice of prohibition, or an appellate procedure. BT’s Cleanfeed filtering system that tells users attempting to access an unauthorized site that it is unavailable owing to a technical fault; the end-users are deceived by the filter into believing that the temptation does not exist.
Everybody knows about the Great Firewall of China, but few people know about the ever expanding internet censorship in the UK, censorship which is putting in place technical measures that could be used to stop access to virtually anything on the web.
Which is the greater concern, the known threat or the unknown threat?