Think of the children

The real threat to internet users is censorship, not social networking

Amid the flurry of election speculation that marked the opening of parliament, another trend could have passed unnoticed. And indeed, if Gordon Brown had not announced that the television psychologist Tanya Byron was to lead his investigation into the effects of computer technology on children, it may well have done. But it is not just the photogenic Byron who will be thinking of the children over the coming months.

In the summer, the chair of the House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport announced his intention to investigate what damage social networking sites could be having on Britain's young people.

Consenting adults have good grounds to hope that both these reviews will be sensible affairs that advocate education for parents about the risks of the web and offer reviews of software they can instal to make sure kids steer clear of adult content. Elsewhere in the body politic, however, a rather different attitude towards online content is emerging. Next month, the European Commission will propose a raft of anti-terror measures, including the development of technologies that can deny access to websites judged to aid or incite terrorism. Back at home, the Home Office continues to put pressure on consumer internet service providers to voluntarily instal BT's CleanFeed technology, a blocking tool that denies access to a list of child pornography and hate-speech sites identified and monitored by the Internet Watch Foundation.

Once the filtering technologies are in place, it will be only a matter of time before they are applied to block ever more types of content.

SmartFilter, a commercial internet filtering product described as a way for corporations to enforce internet usage policies among staff, but used in Tunisia as a wholesale censorship tool, enables content to be blocked by category. As well as "Pornography", "Gruesome content" and "Hate speech", the categories include "Politics/Opinion" and "Non-Profit/Advocacy/NGO". The OpenNet Initiative, an organisation that has made its name monitoring the censorious practices of China, Burma, Saudi Arabia and the like, recently announced that it would extend its yearly technical survey of internet filtering practice to cover much of mainland Europe.

The internet once looked like a place where mass censorship could not take place, but it is becoming clear not only that it will, but that it will do so in far less favourable conditions. In the old media world, D-notices and defamation claims landed on the editor's desk, and were dealt with by those whose vocation is at least loosely tied to ideas about the value of free expression. In the new media age, censorship will take place at the fat pipe level, presided over by businessmen and engineers.

If we are going to start thinking about the children, let's think about that.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?