As anyone who knows me will know, I abhor censorship. It simply doesn’t work: it inflicts the narrow world view of a minority on the majority, often causes suffering and ultimately fails in its objectives.
When my parents first got the Internet, back in the mid-1990s, they were given a NetNanny-style product. It took me a week to work out how to navigate around it, at the age of 14, but once I knew, the entire school knew and the product became an annoyance and nothing more. It failed.
However, despite the $85m Australian anti-porn filter being circumvented in less an hour by a sixteen year old, and predictions by experts of harmful over-blocking of sexual education and abuse support websites, David Cameron – egged on by the much-hated Daily Mail – have blackmailed the biggest ISPs in the country to apply censorship on Internet connections by default: all for the “kids,” of course. Users will have to opt-out of “protection,” not opt-in. It’s scandalous.
But just how easy is it to navigate around such filters? I set up my old mobile with a Three SIM, added some credit and the parental lock settings, before attaching it to my netbook. Sure BBC Weather loaded, and porn sites were unavailable: first pass, fine. It seemed to be working.
But then, I tried some of the proxy list from HideMyAss and retried that porn site:
Uh-oh; Euston, we have a problem! That’s thirty seconds to circumvent that block and I was in, and this is not going to be beyond the intelligence of a curious, tech-literate ten year old; and when one teenager works it out, they are all going to be using such techniques. Do not underestimate the cooperative nature of children when they are up against adults!
But, that’s easy: web proxies have existed for years, and it’s hard for any blocking technology to keep track of them all. Three can’t possibly manage to block every one, and obviously it’s impossible for them to monitor inside encrypted proxy connections. Furthermore, HTTP proxies are not, what you might call, blisteringly fast and watching a pornographic clip on a “tube” site was not the smoothest experience in the world.
And anyway, various tentacles of our administration are trying to clamp down on such sites, and while any computer-literate person will know the global nature of the Internet means they would have more luck pushing water uphill with a rake, let’s imagine for a moment that ATVOD and Online Safety Bill succeed in their desire to put all pornographic content behind a credit-card paywall. Surely, that would stop all under-18s (and a lot of over-18s too) from accessing porn.
Well … I spotted a 3V Pre-paid VISA credit card in the gift cards section of our local Co-op and, armed with a primary school child (my son), I gave him the money to purchase one. I wanted to see if they would sell it to him; they didn’t bat an eyelid as it isn’t a restricted product like knives, alcohol or tobacco. Why would they object. So along with his chocolate or sweets, he can buy a credit-card!
This evening, I’ve played with it. Activating the card was trivial: it wanted an address and the holder to assert that they were over the age of sixteen, before being activated. It doesn’t require anything more and suddenly, a child could have access to a VISA credit card.
The sort of credit card that mobile networks require to disable web blocking from their Internet portal for any given connection; that’s the child possibly turning off the censorship on their phone themselves! Wow! The sort of credit card that enables the holder to sign up for a VPN account so that they can connect to the Internet through a censored connection without being censored. The sort of facility that enables the holder to sign up to purchase hardcore pornography from websites that ATVOD would approve of!
Yep, that sort of card, in theory.
But would it work? Hmmm … I think it did.
And it cost, almost nothing from the balance!
So: in the next few months, all across the country Internet connections will start to be censored, and for what? It won’t stop kids accessing erotic content, or pornography. It won’t stop them from going to their local lads’-mag-hating supermarket to exchange £25 for a credit card loaded with the same amount, and it won’t stop the pro-censorship brigade demanding ever more restrictions on our freedoms.
I know we will hear tales of teenagers gleefully accessing whatever content they want in the privacy of their own bedrooms while their parents sit on the sofa sipping wine or going to a local restaurant with friends, thinking that their darlings cannot access anything untoward: blissfully ignorant, and so very negligent. A false sense of security.
But there is a solution to this dystopian nightmare: it’s called parenting.
This may be a strange concept to some, but bear with me on this, and I will explain. My children – both primary school age – have access to the Internet, in full. They have electronic devices they can use from any room in the house, and they do. That’s the trust.
But the other side of the coin, is that I also monitor what they access. I sit down with them and explain what is and isn’t appropriate. I teach them about the Internet and empower not frighten them. The “Zombie Death” game wasn’t suitable and my son found that out; we discussed it responsibly and he knows. I take an interest in what they do on-line, and my wife and I teach them sex education. It’s called parenting; they are my responsibility.
I will not devolve and outsource that responsibility, and if any parent seriously believes that absolving their duties to a untrusted and unknown computer algorithm is appropriate, then they are simply not fit to be a parent. In the next two years, a big bite will be taken out of our Internet freedoms, all in the name of “child protection” which will only lull technically-illiterate parents into a false sense of security and offer little help in fighting the filter’s stated objectives: if anyone – teenager or adult – wants to find smut, it is and will remain easy.
Sure, a list of working HTTP/S proxies helps, as does a supermarket that will exchange cash for a VISA card* but to access smut, kids need their parents to sit back and give them a net connection while taking no interest in their online activities at all.
But then, that’s a truth that doesn’t sit too well with the righteous Claire Perry, the Daily Mail and all the other prudes: sorry guys, but it’s time for you to take some responsibility.
But because they can’t, or won’t, all of us in society have to suffer.
* = As the pre-paid VISA cards sit with the gift cards, what chances that a few teenagers will receive them this Christmas so that they can choose their own present from wherever they want?!