Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Should we step up online censorship?

Andrea Leadsom says yes. Padraig Reidy says no.

Andrea Leadsom says yes

There is a need for drastic action to be taken to prevent young people being exposed to disturbing material on the internet.  

The majority of today's parents know less about technology than their own kids do, and have little control over the internet content their children can access. It's not just pornography that is a problem; the internet is full of inappropriate material, including material on self-harming, anorexia, bomb-making sites and suicide sites.

Society has long held the view that we allow parents the right to "hold power" over their own children in order to protect them, to educate them and keep them from the harsher realities of the world until they are mature enough to handle them properly.

This right is being undermined by the rapid and exponential progression of internet-enabled technology, and few parents feel confident that they are adequately protecting their children as they browse.

There are two sound ways to ensure that children are not exposed to dangerous or disturbing content. At the level of Internet Service Provider, individual sites can be blocked ‘at source’ by ISPs taking the initiative and offering filters for adult sites and offering to block various forms of selected content, tailored to the individual needs of the household. This would have to extend to mobile internet providers, who are still a long behind.

There should be a range of choices on what content to block, from pornography and self harm to bomb making websites. Adults choose from a variety of providers and pay for the internet services they use, so should be able to change it at will. ISPs could introduce different passports for different family members as well.

One of the imaginative ways this has been accomplished is by TalkTalk, who offer a ‘HomeSafe’ service to parents which allows different filter levels for a variety of content, and is completely customisable and controllable by the end user.

The other way that things could be changed is with a move away from the standard .co.uk and .com Top Level Domains (TLD) for more explicit content, to separate entirely inappropriate sections of the web. Already there is a .xxx TLD available for pornographic websites, which would mean that a parent would simply have to be given the option to block all websites which include this ending. Another alternative would be a ".18" TLD, applicable to any age-sensitive information.

There is a view that the internet is in need of a monitor for obscene and adult websites. Outside of cyberspace, we have bodies such as Ofcom and the British Board of Film Classification that continually work to ensure our children are not exposed to the wrong things. This could be implemented in some way online, whereby a website would have to have its content "rated" before being accessible online. While it sounds like a massive leap, the majority of new websites already go through testing when they are hosted to make sure that a site is intact and that files and content are free of viruses. This would simply be adding another check to the list, and in reality it is a burden already carried by film makers.

Padraig Reidy says no

In May of last year, as fighting raged on the streets of Sana’a, Yemen, Index on Censorship’s  correspondent there emailed me to ask if I had any problems getting onto her blog, where she regularly posted articles and video. I could view the site in London, but neither she nor anyone else in Yemen could.

After a small bit of digging, we found the problem: the Canadian company that supplied filtering technology to several Arabian peninsula countries had blocked the entire blogging platform Tumblr after complaints that it carried pornographic content.

This is a simple example of the dangers of handing over the power of what you can and cannot view on the web, a proposal being put forward by Conservative MP Claire Perry.

A feature of censorship in the modern democratic world is that it is often carried out with the best of intentions. Where once our blasphemy laws protected the ultimate power (who apparently needed our help) now we design initiatives to protect the vulnerable: women, minorities and above all, children.

But the reasonableness, the niceness of the motives can make the proposed solutions almost impossible to critique without the conversation being drowned by a chorus of Helen Lovejoys insisting that Someone Please Think Of The Children. I can recall once appearing on a BBC discussion show where a self-appointed moral guardian informed me that it she felt obliged to protect children (the implication being that anyone who disagreed with her meant harm to children).

Let’s work on the assumption that we all want to protect children from the many weird and unsavoury things on the Internet (You don’t? You monster!): is off-the-shelf automatic filtering really the best way to go about this? I’d suggest not: at very least, such technology may create a false sense of security, lulling parents into the belief that it is now utterly impossible for their children to access dubious content online. But anyone who’s ever been schooled by a tech-literate teen knows that nothing is impossible for them.

It also runs the risk of blocking harmless and even useful content - and not just reports on the Yemen uprising. When a list of blocked sites maintained by ACMA, The Australian Communications and Media Authority, was leaked in 2009. About half of the list consisted of legitimate sites that would not normally be blocked, including a MySpace page and the homepage of a dentist.

Automatic filters can also mean users fall foul of what is known as the “Scunthorpe problem” (think about it), and gay rights sites can easily get classified as pornographic.

It is not unreasonable to request that companies make technology available that helps parents control what is viewed by their children. But the choice must ultimately be in the hands of parents. We tend too often, with technology-based problems, to imagine that the solution must also be technology based. But the issue here is words and pictures, not bits and pixels. We keep an eye on what our children eat and drink, what books they read and what television they watch - and we would resent a private company that does not know our child having the power to do so. The same real-world watchfulness is the only way of keeping children safe online.

Andrea Leadsom MP is the Conservative Member of Parliament for South Northhamptonshire and Padraig Reidy is news editor of Index on Censorship.

Andrea Leadsom MP is the Conservative Member of Parliament for South Northhamptonshire and Padraig Reidy is news editor of Index on Censorship.

Getty
Show Hide image

MPs Seema Malhotra and Stephen Kinnock lay out a 6-point plan for Brexit:

Time for Theresa May to lay out her priorities and explain exactly what “Brexit means Brexit” really means.

Angela Merkel has called on Theresa May to “take her time” and “take a moment to identify Britain’s interests” before invoking Article 50. We know that is code for the “clock is ticking” and also that we hardly have any idea what the Prime Minister means by “Brexit means Brexit.”

We have no time to lose to seek to safeguard what is best in from our membership of the European Union. We also need to face some uncomfortable truths.

Yes, as remain campaigners we were incredibly disappointed by the result. However we also recognise the need to move forward with the strongest possible team to negotiate the best deal for Britain and maintain positive relationships with our nearest neighbours and allies. 
 
The first step will be to define what is meant by 'the best possible deal'. This needs to be a settlement that balances the economic imperative of access to the single market and access to skills with the political imperative to respond to the level of public opinion to reduce immigration from the EU. A significant proportion of people who voted Leave on 23 June did so due to concerns about immigration. We must now acknowledge the need to review and reform. 

We know that the single market is founded upon the so-called "four freedoms", namely the free movement of goods, capital, services and people & labour. As things stand, membership of the single market is on an all-or-nothing basis. 

We believe a focus for negotiations should be reforms to how the how the single market works. This should address how the movement of people and labour across the EU can exist alongside options for greater controls on immigration for EU states. 

We believe that there is an appetite for such reforms amongst a number of EU governments, and that it is essential for keeping public confidence in how well the EU is working.

So what should Britain’s priorities be? There are six vital principles that the three Cabinet Brexit Ministers should support now:

1. The UK should remain in the single market, to the greatest possible extent.

This is essential for our future prosperity as a country. A large proportion of the £17 billion of foreign direct investment that comes into the UK every year is linked to our tariff-free access to a market of 500 million consumers. 

Rather than seeking to strike a "package deal" across all four freedoms, we should instead sequence our approach, starting with an EU-wide review of the freedom of movement of people and labour. This review should explore whether the current system provides the right balance between consistency and flexibility for member states. Indeed, for the UK this should also address the issue of better registration of EU nationals in line with other nations and enforcement of existing rules. 

If we can secure a new EU-wide system for the movement of people and labour, we should then seek to retain full access to the free movement of goods, capital and services. This is not just in our interests, but in the interests of the EU. For other nation states to play hardball with Britain after we have grappled first with the complexity of the immigration debate would be to ignore rather than act early to address an issue that could eventually lead to the end of the EU as we know it.

2. In order to retain access to the single market we believe that it will be necessary to make a contribution to the EU budget.

Norway, not an EU member but with a high degree of access to the single market, makes approximately the same per capita contribution to the EU budget as the UK currently does. We must be realistic in our approach to this issue, and we insist that those who campaigned for Leave must now level with the British people. They must accept that if the British government wishes to retain access to the single market then it must make a contribution to the EU budget.

3. The UK should establish an immigration policy which is seen as fair, demonstrates that we remain a country that is open for business, and at the same time preventing unscrupulous firms from undercutting British workers by importing cheap foreign labour.  

We also need urgent confirmation that EU nationals who were settled here before the referendum as a minimum are guaranteed the right to remain, and that the same reassurance is urgently sought for Britons living in mainland Europe. The status of foreign students from the EU at our universities must be also be clarified and a strong message sent that they are welcomed and valued. 

4. The UK should protect its financial services industry, including passporting rights, vital to our national prosperity, while ensuring that the high standards of transparency and accountability agreed at an EU level are adhered to, alongside tough new rules against tax evasion and avoidance. In addition, our relationship with the European Investment Bank should continue. Industry should have the confidence that it is business as usual.

5. The UK should continue to shadow the EU’s employment legislation. People were promised that workers’ rights would be protected in a post-Brexit Britain. We need to make sure that we do not have weaker employment legislation than the rest of Europe.

6. The UK should continue to shadow the EU’s environmental legislation.

As with workers’ rights, we were promised that this too would be protected post-Brexit.  We must make sure we do not have weaker legislation on protecting the environment and combatting climate change. We must not become the weak link in Europe.

Finally, it is vital that the voice of Parliament and is heard, loud and clear. In a letter to the Prime Minister we called for new joint structures – a Special Parliamentary Committee - involving both Houses to be set up by October alongside the establishment of the new Brexit unit. There must be a clear role for opposition parties. It will be equally important to ensure that both Remain and Leave voices are represented and with clearly agreed advisory and scrutiny roles for parliament. Representation should be in the public domain, as with Select Committees.

However, it is also clear there will be a need for confidentiality, particularly when sensitive negotiating positions are being examined by the committee. 

We call for the establishment of a special vehicle – a Conference or National Convention to facilitate broader engagement of Parliament with MEPs, business organisations, the TUC, universities, elected Mayors, local government and devolved administrations. 

The UK’s exit from the EU has dominated the political and economic landscape since 23 June, and it will continue to do so for many years to come. It is essential that we enter into these negotiations with a clear plan. There can be no cutting of corners, and no half-baked proposals masquerading as "good old British pragmatism". 

The stakes are far too high for that.