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Should we step up online censorship?

Andrea Leadsom says yes. Padraig Reidy says no.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.