Fears over Internet freedom as UK plans to expand web censorship


As Britain finds itself in the middle of the political maelstrom surrounding WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, and the debate over Internet freedom resulting from his arrest on an Interpol warrant, British authorities are stepping up their efforts to wield more control over the Internet.

The UK's coalition government is discussing a plan that would see all pornographic websites automatically blocked in an effort to keep children from accessing them.

Under the proposed plan, which appears to have the backing of Britain's major Internet service providers, the government would provide ISPs a list of objectionable websites, which the ISPs would automatically block. An Internet surfer would then have to "opt in" to be allowed to see the content.

Communications Minister Ed Vaizey says it's a useful step in preventing the premature sexualization of children. He cites a report earlier this year that showed three in 10 British children aged 10 had seen pornography online.

"We are not coming at this from an anti-porn perspective. We just want to make sure children aren't stumbling across things we don't want them to see," Conservative member of parliament Claire Perry said.

But critics say it's one more step in an effort by governments around the world to seize control of the Internet. They say the system would inevitably be used to restrict access to non-pornographic websites.

The British website block list, if it's implemented, would be based on an existing filter mechanism that blocks access to child pornography sites. That system, put into place several years ago, is being hailed as a resounding success in reducing access to illegal porn.

Internet activists point out that these block lists have already been abused in some countries. In Australia, for instance, a government block list -- which officials said would be used only to block illegal content -- was found to have targeted religious and political websites. The list was even used to block parts of WikiLeaks.

(Final implementation of the "Great Firewall of Australia" has been delayed until after the 2011 election.)

Some activists argue that the efforts to protect children are simply a politically palatable way to get the public to accept government control over the Internet.

However, in the US, government plans to take greater control over Internet content have been focused on copyright protection, rather than children.

A proposed law before Congress this fall would see the government granted powers to block access to websites that are deemed to have infringed on copyright law.

The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) has been criticized as a heavy-handed attempt at censorship that would allow officials to block access to an entire site if an instance of copyright infringement is found. So, for example, the entire YouTube domain could theoretically be blocked if a video on the site is found to be violating copyright.

Although COICA was blocked from passing through the lame-duck session of Congress by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), it may yet be revived in the new congressional session.

Meanwhile, Britain's Internet service providers are showing signs they support the effort at creating a porn site block list.

Andrew Heaney of wireless carrier TalkTalk said his company's objective was "not to do what the politicians want us but to do what is right for our customers." But, he added, "If other companies aren't going to do it of their own volition, then maybe they should be leant on."