The true cost of net censorship
Posted at 19:53 on 20th January 2014 - permalink

As you probably know by now, the UK government is leaning on the major ISPs to implement opt-out internet content filtering. This ill-conceived plan is being driven ahead (after a consultation process presumably akin to the tribunal scene from Aliens) to pander to the tabloid press, who can make almost as much money sowing fear and paranoia about new technology among their readers as they can by using it to publish invasive photos of celebrities.

(Coincidentally, Huawei – the company peddling the government-favoured censorship technology – are investing £1.3bn in the UK. But of course that is completely unrelated.)

Encouraging private companies to filter the internet with no oversight is (obviously) a recipe for disaster. It’s already resulting in legitimate websites being blocked, and filters being abused to further commercial agendas. The longer this shambles is allowed to continue, the more damage will be done to the digital economy (and much else) as a result.

The Open Rights Group are taking the novel (albeit possibly risky) approach of pretending for the sake of argument that there could conceivably be a valid case for the government to be involved in running ISPs, and then allowing the bureaucrats to paint themselves into a corner as they unpack the extensive list of legal, logistical and technical issues that would make such a system unworkable.

While this process will hopefully bring their shabby profit-motivated crusade to an expensive deadlock and force it to be quietly shelved, I hold out little hope for the politicians showing the wisdom or humility to abandon their rhetoric. Britain’s culturally moribund political class simply don’t engage with the internet in any meaningful sense. Terrifyingly, this does not seem to simply be a generational issue – many politicians under the age of 45 brag of a technical illiteracy that would be untenable in most other professions.

If the average politician dimly grasps the internet as a “series of tubes” or “complicated teletext” it’s no wonder they’re going to do extraordinarily stupid things like calling for Google to use their giant brains to delete all the cyber hackers. Matters aren’t helped by lobbyists from commercial interests only too happy to exploit this ignorance.

So censorship is morally reprehensible and most politicians are patsies who think Tron is a documentary. Tell me something I don’t know, I hear you cry.

Well, something that hasn’t really been talked about much is how censorship will impact the creative industries in the UK in the long run.

Even while filtering isn’t implemented by all ISPs and users are given the chance to opt out, we are already dividing the country into two groups: those with access to the internet and those with access to a subset that a downstream party has chosen for them. We’ve all already seen the insanely over-reaching lists of filterable content some of the ISPs are offering, including such categories as games and social networking. The likely (in fact, inevitable) upshot of this is that a proportion of the population will lose access to a whole raft of creative channels.

Many fields of creative activity today benefit from online communities where participants can post their work, seek feedback and gain expertise and inspiration from the work of others. Millions of people who would in the past have been denied the chance to develop their skills outside of a formal academic setting are now able to have rich creative lives thanks to these communities. Here is a very narrow cross-section of the places I’m thinking of:

  • YouTube, Vimeo, Twitch.TV, Vine (performers, directors, musicians, animators, journalists)
  • Newgrounds, Kongregate, TIGsource, TWINE, GameMaker, ModDB (game designers, animators, composers, producers)
  • DeviantArt, Flickr, Instagram (artists, sculptors, cartoonists, photographers, fashion designers)
  • Soundcloud, Bandcamp (musicians, singers, composers, producers)
  • WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Twitter (writers, journalists, comedians, historians, hobbyists)
  • Everything2, Wikipedia, LiveJournal, Wattpad, Amazon (writers, poets, playwrights, screenwriters)
  • Minecraft, Moshi Monsters, Disney Infinity (the majority of British citizens aged 7-13, who will go on to do all the roles above)

This list is far from exhaustive, and focuses on established platforms – it’s surely not representative of where the next generation of creative types are hanging out.

All of the above (and, well, everything else on the web) runs the risk of being heavy-handedly blocked by the ISPs’ filters. A few of them (e.g. YouTube and Wikipedia) have the clout and mainstream recognition to demand whitelisting, but outside of those look increasingly precarious. While this may not be an issue for those of us who pay our own ISP bills, or kids with educated, informed parents, for everyone else it’s a bit of a problem.

What if you’re a teenager with no disposable income or transport, whose well-meaning parents are signed up to a censored ISP at home, and who attend a school with inadequate computing facilities (iPads instead of laptops for example)? Through no fault of your own you are creatively stymied.

Maybe this sounds like it’s not that important. Some of us are too old to have grown up with the internet, and all of us living outside of oppressive regimes have never had to contend with censorship. But jeopardising the main venues for millions of people in the UK to socialise, learn and express themselves is a potentially huge issue.

If the worst-case scenario comes to pass (mandatory censorship of all ISPs), the result will be a generation locked out of global digital culture with the inevitable skills shortage that entails. The UK’s vibrant creative industries aren’t the result of any inherent superiority. It’s very easy to look at the different countries of Europe with creative sectors in varying states of maturity, and to pinpoint where a lack of access to equipment, communication and information has been prevalent at some time in the past.

Thirty years ago the media’s favourite narrative about the games industry was of schoolboys writing computer games in their bedrooms and becoming millionaires. It was a fantasy of course: All of these computer whizz-kids were boys, most of the schools they went to were elite private ones and in a disproportionate number of cases their parents were millionaires already. The vast majority of young people didn’t have computers at home or school – circumstances beat out talent before the race even started.

Since then, we’ve reached a point where literally anyone can now create games (or music, fiction, films, art, etc.), with little or no money or equipment, and (if they’re willing to put the time and effort in) find an appreciative audience and perhaps even commercial reward. We are all creators now.

I once had a job acquiring content for a web games portal (“A&R” in music industry parlance). I was constantly surprised at the average age of the most talented developers. There were kids making a living selling Flash games who were still in high school, and they came from every corner of the world. They didn’t ask for anyone’s permission to do this. What talents are we going to lose by making these opportunities that bit harder to access?

I’ve not even touched on the lost revenue and chilling effects that arbitrary censorship will cause for online retailers, or how this will affect small developers’ ability to self-publish.

Censorship needlessly, pointlessly turns the clock back for everyone. Let’s not let it happen here.

How you can possibly help:

1. Write to your MP.

2. Write to creative industry trade bodies to encourage them to enshrine an open internet as a basic necessity for the UK to remain competitive and democratic.

3. Punish the offending ISPs. At the first hint of creeping censorship take your business elsewhere. There’s now vast amounts of evidence that filters are fundamentally flawed, and if they’re commercially detrimental as well the ISPs will push back. At present, Sky, BT and TalkTalk (as I understand it the original architects of this cynical project) are on the losing side, while most of the others either haven’t been forced by the government to comply or are actively fighting against it, e.g.:

4. Join/donate to the EFF and/or the ORG.

You can find much more in the way of information and resources on the Open Rights Group site. Assuming it’s not blocked for you.

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