Great Firewall of Cameron: the worst of all worlds for British parents

In my latest Guardian column, I explain how UK prime minister David Cameron's plan to opt the entire nation into a programme of Internet censorship is the worst of all worlds for kids and their parents. Cameron's version of the Iranian "Halal Internet" can't possibly filter out all the bad stuff, nor can it avoid falsely catching good stuff we want our kids to see (already the filters are blocking websites about sexual health and dealing with "porn addiction"). That means that our kids will still end up seeing stuff they shouldn't, but that we parents won't be prepared for it, thanks to the false sense of security we get from the filters.

David Cameron's attempt to create a Made-in-Britain version of Iran's "Halal Internet" is the worst of both worlds for parents like me. Kids are prevented from seeing things that they need to access – sites about sexual health, for example – and I still have to monitor my daughter all the time when she uses the net (or teach her how to cope with seeing things no kid should see) because the filter won't stop her from accessing the bad stuff.

And for parents who don't understand that filters are bunkum, the situation is much worse. It's one thing to know that there are risks to your kid from the internet. But parents who rely on the filter are living in bubble of false security. There's nothing more deadly than a false sense of security: If you know your car is having brake problems, you can compensate by driving with extra care, increasing your following distance, and so on. If you falsely believe your brakes to be in good running order, you're liable to find out the hard way that they aren't (if you survive, you can thank Bruce Schneier for that apt and useful analogy).

For me, parenting in the internet age means sitting with my child while she's online and still small enough that I can perfectly regulate her network usage – not just to ensure that she doesn't happen on to the bad stuff, but also to instill in her the responsibility, sense and good habits that will help her to steer clear of the bad stuff when she gets a little older and I can no longer monitor all her online activity. It's hard. Parenting is hard. It's scary.

What does David Cameron's Great Firewall look like?

(Image: David Cameron official, 10 Downing Street/Wikimedia Commons, OGL 1.0

Notable Replies

  1. Well said. I have been trying to explain this to a number of people for the last few months. It seems they just get hung up on the "no one needs porn so just ban it, we have to do something" idea. Of course they don't see that you can neither ban it or filter it out and that trying to do so makes this worse.

    I now have a good place to send them but I would say whilst I really like the analogy but those same people will just say... you shouldn't drive with bad brakes you just stop. So we should stop porn!

  2. No not Amish. They don't have a problem with sex they are okay with that.

    Let me try again.....

    They would say that if you detect bad brakes on your car the correct response is that you stop and get someone to fix it so then you can drive normally rather than with the care and attention required to get a car with faulty brakes to the repairers.

    So if porn on the internet is like the bad brakes on your car you get the porn removed from your internet and thus there is no danger and kiddies can use the internet with impunity.

    Of course they don't realize that by assuming the filters work perfectly they are effectively assuming that their brakes can never go wrong so can drive like an idiot at any time. (Hmm thinking about it and seeing how some people drive I guess this is how a lot of people think.)

  3. If you type 'big dick' into a search engine, will this automatically filter out all photo's of Cameron?

  4. The internet is where you go to find out about stuff. It should also teach you that...

    • There is lots of nasty stuff out there
    • You cannot believe all you read or see

    I have just been reading the 'femskin' article. I had no idea there was such a thing, and now I do. I am not sure I will ever use the knowledge, but I am probably somehow richer for having seen it. This is the internet working as it should, even if it can be upsetting at times. If you chop out all the rude bits because you want it to be something you can amuse your children, you kill it. Or worse, you turn it into sucky, wholesome (nearly said 'Disney' there, but they don't deserve that) 'educational software'.

    That's assuming you could do a perfect job of filtering the Internet. And everyone who knows says you can't come close.

  5. The library system in the nearest city to me started by putting filters on the computers in the kids' section and nothing on the rest of the computers. Then in 2007, the library board decided at a meeting without even putting it on the agenda to put filters on the adult computers. Then things blew up. Very much in the same way that the debate is going in the UK actually. The busy-body Christians and the anti-porn feminists on one side against the librarians, freedom of expression people, and technical people who know that filters are useless on the other side. The filters were removed after a few more library board meetings and physical privacy screens added to make accidental viewing of other peoples screens less likely.

    While I was checking for articles to see if my memory was accurate about the events (it wasn't entirely), I found this really good video from 2011 about what happened. It's an hour long presentation at Western University from one of the free speech people. (It also contains a partial shot of what I think is one of the Abu Ghraib photos, so maybe nsfw).

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