WASHINGTON, D.C., November 18, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A new WhiteHouse.gov petition is asking the federal government to require internet service providers to block access to pornography by default, following the introduction of a similar policy in the United Kingdom.
“We are asking that people who are interested in porn should have to seek it and choose it,” the petition reads. “They should have to ‘Opt In’ for it by making arrangements to receive it with their Internet Service Provider. Everyone else should be free from it and assumed ‘Opt Out.’”
The petition’s author, “M.G.” of Greenbrae, Calif., echoed the concerns of frustrated parents nationwide who struggle to shield their children’s eyes from porn in a world where Internet access is available to many kids 24/7.
“The average person, even children, can type in the word ‘cat’ or ‘home’ or ‘soup’ and instantly be inundated with offensive and disturbing pornographic images,” the petition states. “Parents and individuals have to go to great lengths to install Internet filters that often don’t weed out all porn. We are asking for greater protection and responsibility from Internet Service providers and our country.”
As of this writing, the petition has been active for three weeks and has garnered roughly 35,000 signatures. It must reach 100,000 signatures in the next five days to become eligible for a response from the White House.
Petitions submitted through the website are not binding on the government; the White House is not required to take any action on requests beyond issuing a statement.
The U.S. government has a history of opposing mandatory filters – in 2010, when Australia proposed a similar plan, the State Department expressed its concern to Australian officials, and released a statement reiterating the U.S.’s commitment to “advancing the free flow of information, which we view as vital to economic prosperity and preserving open societies globally.”
But if the petition’s authors do succeed in getting the government to consider a mandatory nationwide porn filter, they may get more than they bargained for. Free speech activists around the world, including some anti-porn advocates, have objected to the UK’s mandatory filters for being both ineffective and overly broad, and have accused Prime Minister David Cameron of introducing them potentially as a backdoor method for the British government to censor information and direct web traffic flow.
Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group said that when his group interviewed several U.K. ISPs to ask exactly what would be filtered out under the default settings, they were provided with a blacklist that included not just pornography, but violent or weapons-related material, ‘extremist’ and terrorist-related content, anorexia and eating disorder websites, suicide-related websites, alcohol, smoking, web forums, ‘esoteric material,’ and web blocking circumvention tools.
If the same parameters were applied in the United States, such filters might by default block pro-life websites, “fundamentalist” Christian websites, and sites that oppose gay “marriage,” all of which the Obama administration has defined as “extremist” positions or even “terrorism.”
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“David Cameron wants people to sleepwalk into censorship,” argued Killock. “We know that people stick with defaults: this is part of the idea behind ‘nudge theory’ and ‘choice architecture’ that is popular with Cameron.”
In the United Kingdom, about 95 percent of homes are now covered by the government-mandated filters, which block all blacklisted content unless an adult who has provided proof of age specifically requests otherwise. The vast majority of public wi-fi is also covered by these filters. Coverage is expected to be universal by the end of 2014.
The filters were put in place after Cameron made a speech in July announcing the changes, which he claimed were designed to protect the innocence of children.
While Cameron acknowledged the benefits of a “free and open internet,” he argued that “in no other market and with no other industry do we have such an extraordinarily light touch when it comes to protecting our children. Children can’t go into the shops or the cinema and buy things meant for adults or have adult experiences; we rightly regulate to protect them. But when it comes to the Internet … we’ve neglected our responsibility to children.”
“The Internet is not a side-line to real life or an escape from real life, it is real life,” the prime minister said. “It has an impact on the children who view things that harm them, on the vile images of abuse that pollute minds and cause crime, on the very values that underpin our society. So we’ve got to be more active, more aware, more responsible about what happens online.”
In an opinion piece for the Guardian, author and activist Cory Doctorow agreed with Cameron that awareness and responsibility is the key to keeping children safe from online porn. But he maintained that parents, not the government, should assume that responsibility, and argued that mandatory filters only provide a false sense of security while infringing on legitimate websites’ free speech rights.
“Presenting a parent who is trying to keep their children safe with the question: ‘Would you like to block all adult content on your internet connection?’ is terribly misleading, designed to play on parental fears and bypass critical judgment,” Doctorow wrote. “Better to ask: ‘Would you like us to block some pornography (but not all of it), and a lot of other stuff, according to secret blacklists composed by anonymous third-party contractors who have been known to proudly classify photos of Michaelangelo's David as ‘nudity?’’”
Argued Doctorow, “there simply isn't any way a parent can rely on Britain's ISPs to stand in for their personal attention and their work to help kids acquire the only filter that can work: common sense and good judgment.”
Free-market tools to enhance internet safety do exist, and are often free for download. If you are interested in blocking explicit material on your home computer, you can find a list of helpful programs here.