Adam Hartley
14/10/2011 15:02 | By Adam Hartley, columnist, MSN Tech & Gadgets

Should the internet be censored?

As plans to block internet content are announced, Adam Hartley asks: who should take responsibility for where we click?

Our politicians don't seem to mix too well with technology and social media.

Whether they are foolishly issuing embarrassing cover-up tweets or calling for our internet service providers (ISPs) to censor web content, rarely a week goes by without some MP putting his or her foot in the digital doodoo, with some truly golden tech clangers coming out of Westminster over the last week.

Twitter chaos in the Commons
Firstly, Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne accidentally tweeted that he wanted to keep his "fingerprints" off a story, so that it looked like it had come from "someone else" (duh!).

Liberal Democrat minister Chris Huhne has been at the centre of a Twitter controversy (© Matt Cardy_Getty Images News_Getty Images)

This immediately kicked off a debate in the House of Commons about whether MPs should even be allowed to tweet from the hallowed halls of power - with some, such as Conservative MP James Gray, claiming that Twitter: "brings the whole nature of debate in this place into some disrepute."

Not to be outdone by Huhne's stupid social media gaffe, prime minister David Cameron then decided that it was somehow a good idea to ask ISPs to censor access to adult content online by adding a 'porn filter' which would control the type of internet content that could be delivered to their customers.

So what does all of this mean for the average British net user? Suggestions that we may soon have to inform our ISPs if we want 'full' access to all online content, warts and all, have already got some civil liberties campaigners worrying that this could well be the beginning of a slippery slope to full-on web censorship...

Backdoor net censorship: the PM's tech howler
Indeed, there are serious concerns among freedom of speech and open internet campaigners that such a move, while ostensibly being made to protect children from unintentionally accessing adult material online, could well be a backdoor to the government and ISPs controlling and censoring what we can and cannot see and do on the internet.

MSN reported on the Prime Minister's latest net policy earlier in the week, a policy which currently means that four leading ISPs - BT, Sky, Talk Talk and Virgin - will give their users the option to block adult content websites

Chief executive of Ofcom, Ed Richards, told the Daily Mail that: "Seven UK media regulators have come together to develop a single website with a single aim - to help protect children from inappropriate material."

That website - called ParentPort - has been set up to allow concerned parents to complain about any inappropriate images or content that they see online or in the mainstream media.

The ParentPort website has been set up to allow concerned parents to complain about innapropriate content (© ParentPort)

"We should not try to wrap children in cotton wool or simply throw our hands up and accept the world as it is," the prime minster explained to Reg Bailey, the chief executive of the Mothers' Union, when discussing the thinking behind ParentPort. "Instead, we should look to put the brakes on an unthinking drift towards ever-greater commercialisation and sexualisation."

Clearly, no right-thinking person wants their kids or their much-younger brothers and sisters to be watching or playing 18-rated movies and videogames, or dressing up like Christina Aguilera on heat. Which makes it difficult to question the PM's apparent motives in pushing this latest backdoor net censorship plan.

But lets make no bones about it. This IS still censorship. Because it is about taking responsibility for what you and I, as consenting and responsible adults, see and do on the internet away from us and handing it to the overseers at Ofcom.

Why banning access always backfires
But banning things - such as preventing web users from having access to stuff, merely makes many of us want to see that stuff more.

So surely education and putting decent parental-control measures in at home - to stop under-18s playing or watching stuff they really shouldn't be doing - is what the government and our ISPs and technology companies should be focusing on?

Censorship on the web (© Lawrence Lawry_Photodisc_Getty Images)

"We should tread very carefully when developing state-sanctioned censorship of the internet," said Nick Pickles, director of privacy at civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, earlier this week.

"It is a dangerous path to go down to expect technology to replace parental oversight and responsibility. A free and open internet is the basis of Britain's economic future - for the government to actively intervene on non-legal grounds sets a precedent that could cause irreparable harm to free speech."

Which pretty much sums it up. If you are a well-educated adult and a responsible member of society, you don't need to have anybody else telling you what to read, play or view. You can make your own mind up.

And if some daft parents want to give up their right to decide what they are able to do online, complaining that their kids are somehow able to 'get around' parental password-control systems already in place on the web, TV or game console, then the problem lies with the parents.

Take control
Do you let your children read your personal emails? Do you let them access your online bank account? No. Of course you don't. So take some responsibility and be sure to know what they are watching or playing. Because if you don't, Big Brother may well soon be watching us more closely than ever before!

As Pickles from Big Brother Watch points out, the real issue here is the worrying confusion between policy makers wanting good headlines and the technological reality. After all, it was only eight weeks ago that MPs and the Government were calling for the power to shut down Twitter and Blackberry Messenger, and last year the Digital Economy Act was passed giving regulators the power to disconnect web users who repeatedly infringe copyright.

"Government's response to online issues is all too often authoritarian, looking at shutting sites down, disconnecting people or censoring content," said the civil liberties campaigner.

"In a global information market, that response simply will not work. The growth of the web is nothing short of a new industrial revolution and Westminster needs to focus on harnessing, rather than restricting, the opportunities that are emerging online."

What do you think? Do we need greater controls on the internet? Let us know in the comments section below.

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