My latest Guardian column, "Adult content filters can't replace good parenting," is a critique of the media coverage of Britain's new national "adult content" filter. The reporting on this story all led with uncritical repetition of the government's line that this would block "all adult content" -- nevermind that no two people agree on a definition of "adult content" and even if they did, the filter would inevitably miss loads of "adult content" and block lots of stuff that wasn't "adult."
Presenting a parent who is trying to keep their children safe with the question: "Would you like to block all adult content on your internet connection?" is terribly misleading, designed to play on parental fears and bypass critical judgement. Better to ask: "Would you like us to block some pornography (but not all of it), and a lot of other stuff, according to secret blacklists composed by anonymous third-party contractors who have been known to proudly classify photos of Michaelangelo's David as 'nudity?'"
It's simplistic to say that governments should abide by the principle "do no harm", but it's perfectly reasonable to demand that policies should at least do some good. When our national information policy is turned over to anonymous, unaccountable censorware vendors, we fail to deliver a safe online environment for our children and we undermine our own free access to information. It's a lose-lose proposition.
As a parent, I worry about what my kid finds on the net. At three and a half, my daughter is already old enough to drive a little tablet and check out cartoons on YouTube. Just the other day, I heard some odd dialogue emerging from across the sofa, and I had a peek at my daughter's screen. To my surprise, I found that she had discovered a little interlinked pocket of aggressive, kid-targeted Barbie adverts, uploaded by the official Mattel account, masterfully wrought pester-power timebombs designed to convert my kid into a nagging doll-acquisition machine. What's more, my kid had heretofore only watched ripped DVDs, YouTube cartoons, and CBeebies and had literally never seen a video advert before.