posted by codders in rant
I went to the Convention on Modern Liberty on Saturday, which was a pleasure to attend. It was great to be in the company of vaguely like-minded people who care deeply about the [alleged] slow but steady erosion of our civil liberties, and to hear some compelling arguments that the danger to our freedom is real (not just a figment of my fevered imagination).
One of the morning sessions in Cambridge was a discussion about censorship and the role of the IWF and, being fairly strongly anti-censorship, I chose to go to that session. Long story short, I may have gone on record defending my right to view images of child abuse. I don’t think I made my point as eloquently as I might have done, so I thought I’d summarise the issue here.
The Role of the IWF
I should start by saying that I think the IWF does “a good thing”. As an organisation, they’re run fairly openly and one of their many functions is to be the UK’s notice and take down body. If you have a problem with the UK internet and you want to get it sorted, they’re the people to contact. As such, they are a fairly innocuous alternative to regulation of the UK internet which, I believe, would be a pretty bad idea. Their primary function is not the blocking of child pornography / images of abuse for which they have become so (in)famous recently, and I was pleased that their representative there (Sarah Robertson) acknowledged that their blocking system is imperfect / ineffective. One of the things I objected to most strongly about the blocking system as a technologically-minded person was the idea that an organisation like the IWF imagined it was even possible to censor the internet. It turns out they don’t, which is a relief.
So, given that Sarah acknowledged that the system was flawed – that it served merely as a deterrent and to avoid people accidentally browsing to images of abuse – my question was why the system isn’t opt-in, or at the very least opt-out. If I want my connection filtered, I would be able to go to the IWF or, install some other filtering software. Sarah replied that the system is opt-in, which is true if you’re an ISP, but I happen not to be. I made the point that as an individual, I couldn’t opt out of having my internet connection censored (by what I cheekily described as an opaque organisation – I meant merely that I had no way of knowing what was on the block list). To an extent, it’s possible for users to vote with their feet and sign up with ISPs that don’t implement the IWF scheme, but these ISPs are being pressured in to joining the majority of providers in installing the software / hardware required.
Why would I want to opt out of the system? The IWF blocking system stops me viewing images of abuse which I presumably wouldn’t want to anyway, and moreover, it stops me breaking the law. If I browse without the protection of the system I could accidentally navigate to an illegal image and open myself to prosecution under UK law. Fair point. And at the time I didn’t have an answer, but have since been thinking about it because it’s a really good question.
The Individual and the State
One of the reasons we had all gathered in London, Cambridge and across the UK, was to discuss what some feel is a radical change that is taking place in the relationship between “us” as citizens and “them” as the government. In theory, the state and its machinery exists at our behest and is there to serve us. Some of the attendees at the Convention were there because they felt that this is increasingly not the case. Why do police photograph protesters at peaceful demonstrations? Why can’t protestors photograph the police? (Why, indeed, can the press not photograph the police, making it difficult to publicise and document a demonstration?) The Home Office seem determined to reduce the risk of the population coming to harm at the expense of curtailing our civil liberties – ought we not to be given a say in the amount of risk that we’re prepared to accept? And it’s not entirely the Home Office’s fault. Society and the press tend to blame the government when “bad things” happen – the only way for them to avoid further blame is to reduce the incidence of bad things.
The real question
Why would I want to break the law? I guess that’s not even really the question. I don’t really want to break that law. I certainly don’t want to view images of child abuse, accidentally or otherwise. But I would very much like the option to break any law. The IWF conscientiously populates the blocking list with the locations of images deemed to be illegal to view and, as far as I’m aware, no “right thinking” person would want to see the images that have been blocked. What they’re doing, though, is implementing a system which allows the government to have content they define as illegal “removed” from the UK internet.
I sometimes disagree with the government
There. I said it. Sometimes I break copyright law. Sometimes I drive too fast. Sometimes I start composing blog posts while I’m stuck in traffic. If someone offered to install a chip in my brain that would make it impossible for me to break the law, controversially, I don’t think I’d take them up on the offer. “If you don’t like the law, you should try to have it changed”. True. I absolutely believe that. But as (I think) Shami Chakrabarti aptly put it on Saturday, whoever you vote for, the government tends to get elected.
I can’t change laws quite as quickly as they’re being introduced. It’s simply not practical for me to campaign against everything with which I disagree, and I don’t think there’s enough popular support today for me to make a difference even if I did. I’ll continue to support the work of NO2ID and the Open Rights Group, and I’ll continue to get as involved as I can with things like the Convention on Modern Liberty. For the time being, though, I’d like to keep my moral autonomy; to be able to choose which laws I obey and which I don’t, to have the option to do things that the government doesn’t necessarily want me to do.
I promise I’ll be good
P.S. Obviously the IWF blocking list is a bit of a moot issue for me. I can bypass the filtering in any number of ways if I choose to do so. Recommend you check out Tor and/or ssh -D if you’d like to be able to do the same.