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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.

Photo: Getty
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Brexit could destroy our NHS – and it would be the government's own fault

Without EU citizens, the health service will be short of 20,000 nurses in a decade.

Aneurin Bevan once said: "Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community."

And so, in 1948, the National Health Service was established. But today, the service itself seems to be on life support and stumbling towards a final and fatal collapse.

It is no secret that for years the NHS has been neglected and underfunded by the government. But Brexit is doing the NHS no favours either.

In addition to the promise of £350m to our NHS every week, Brexit campaigners shamefully portrayed immigrants, in many ways, as as a burden. This is quite simply not the case, as statistics have shown how Britain has benefited quite significantly from mass EU migration. The NHS, again, profited from large swathes of European recruitment.

We are already suffering an overwhelming downturn in staffing applications from EU/EAA countries due to the uncertainty that Brexit is already causing. If the migration of nurses from EEA countries stopped completely, the Department of Health predicts the UK would have a shortage of 20,000 nurses by 2025/26. Some hospitals have significantly larger numbers of EU workers than others, such as Royal Brompton in London, where one in five workers is from the EU/EAA. How will this be accounted for? 

Britain’s solid pharmaceutical industry – which plays an integral part in the NHS and our everyday lives – is also at risk from Brexit.

London is the current home of the highly prized EU regulatory body, the European Medicine Agency, which was won by John Major in 1994 after the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.

The EMA is tasked with ensuring that all medicines available on the EU market are safe, effective and of high quality. The UK’s relationship with the EMA is unquestionably vital to the functioning of the NHS.

As well as delivering 900 highly skilled jobs of its own, the EMA is associated with 1,299 QPPV’s (qualified person for pharmacovigilance). Various subcontractors, research organisations and drug companies have settled in London to be close to the regulatory process.

The government may not be able to prevent the removal of the EMA, but it is entirely in its power to retain EU medical staff. 

Yet Theresa May has failed to reassure EU citizens, with her offer to them falling short of continuation of rights. Is it any wonder that 47 per cent of highly skilled workers from the EU are considering leaving the UK in the next five years?

During the election, May failed to declare how she plans to increase the number of future homegrown nurses or how she will protect our current brilliant crop of European nurses – amounting to around 30,000 roles.

A compromise in the form of an EFTA arrangement would lessen the damage Brexit is going to cause to every single facet of our NHS. Yet the government's rhetoric going into the election was "no deal is better than a bad deal". 

Whatever is negotiated with the EU over the coming years, the NHS faces an uncertain and perilous future. The government needs to act now, before the larger inevitable disruptions of Brexit kick in, if it is to restore stability and efficiency to the health service.

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