Cameron's internet filter goes far beyond porn - and that was always the plan

Through secretive negotiations with ISPs, the coalition has divided the internet into 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' categories and cut people off from huge swathes of it at the stroke of a key.

There is no porn filter, and blocking Childline is not an accident

The idea of an internet porn filter has always been a political fiction, a conveniently inaccurate sound bite used to conjure images of hardcore fisting and anal rape in the feverishly overactive imaginations of middle Britain. What activists actually called for - and ISPs were forced to provide - is an 'objectionable content' filter, and there is a vast, damp and aching chasm between the two.

The language of the mythical 'porn filter' is so insidious, so pervasive, that even those of us opposed to it have been sucked into its slippery embrace. And so even when it turns out that O2 are blocking the Childline and Refuge websites, or that BT are blocking gay and lesbian content, we tend to regard them as collateral damage – accidental victims of a well-meaning (if misguided) attempt to protect out children from the evils of cock.

But this was never the case. As Wired reported back in July, Cameron’s ambitions extended far beyond porn. Working through secretive negotiations with ISPs, the coalition has put in place a set of filters and restrictions as ambitious as anything this side of China, dividing the internet into 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' categories, and cutting people off from huge swathes of it at the stroke of a key.

"As well as pornography, users may automatically be opted in to blocks on "violent material", "extremist related content", "anorexia and eating disorder websites" and "suicide related websites", "alcohol" and "smoking". But the list doesn't stop there. It even extends to blocking "web forums" and "esoteric material", whatever that is. "Web blocking circumvention tools" is also included, of course."

And the restrictions go further still. Over the weekend, people were appalled to discover that BT filters supported homophobia, with a category blocking, "sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptive, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy."

BT have since reworded this description to remove the 'gay and lesbian' reference, but given that their filtering is provided by an unnamed "third party supplier" it seems highly unlikely that the filter itself has changed overnight – merely the description. Such measures would never be taken against the 'heterosexual lifestyle' - this is discrimination, pure and simple, hard-coded into our national communications infrastructure.

Of course it’s impossible to see what’s been blocked other than through tedious trial and error. One website owner (@pseudomonas) asked BT on Twitter for information about whether their site was blocked, and their experience was something like talking to a brick wall who only speaks French. The bottom line here is that even parents have no idea what they’re actually blocking, and we have no way of assessing the harm caused by BT’s measures.

O2, the Slough-based BT spin-off, do allow people to check which websites are blocked, and although their filter has been around for a few years now, the results are terrifying. Their 'parental control' settings can be blocked from accessing Childline, Refuge, Stonewall or the Samaritans – which is even more frightening when you realise that they could just as easily be switched on by an abusive partner. The most vulnerable people in society are the most likely to be cut off from the help they need. As Adrian Short argues, some websites simply shouldn’t be blocked.

It was never really clear what the so-called porn filter was supposed to achieve; what problem it was trying to prevent. Filtering seems to have become a crutch for inept parents looking for an easy way to avoid having real conversations with their kids about sex, porn and the world outside their comfortable little cul-de-sacs. If their first sight of a vagina traumatizes your teenage child, then you have brought them up wrong - but of course the problem here is often the parent more than the child; the embarrassed mother of father – projecting their own feelings of discomfort and embarrassment around the topic of sex onto their child. There remains, despite a wave of public hysteria, no good evidence that porn has any detrimental effect on children.

What clearly does have an impact on children though is denying them sex education, suppressing their sexual identity, and shutting off access to child protection or mental health charities. In all this talk of porn filters, the rights of the children campaigners supposedly want to protect have been ignored or trampled. Children should have a right to good quality sex education, access to support hotlines and websites, and information about their sexuality.

We may not be able to stop bad parents cutting their children off from the world, but that doesn’t mean we should allow ISPs to build and sell the tools to do it with. What’s bewildering is that BT’s updated website now explicitly acknowledges that: "Parents should carefully consider the possible adverse effects from denying children of an appropriate age access to information on these issues." If your filter could cause adverse effects on children, then why are you still peddling it?

And that leads to perhaps the most important question of all here - why on Earth were these lists built in the first place? Who constructed a list of 'gay and lesbian' sites to ban? Who at BT commissioned it? On what grounds was this kind of institutional bigotry deemed acceptable? Is it still in effect, and if so, why? These were deliberate acts, which show that something very rotten has taken hold at the heart of the British Internet industry. We are entitled to far greater transparency and clearer answers than we’ve been getting so far.

David Cameron visits the offices of Netmums at CP House in Watford on February 14, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR