Britain's daft plan to block porn is no example for Canada - Macleans.ca

Britain’s daft plan to block porn is no example for Canada

Jesse Brown explains the problem with content filters

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British Prime Minister David Cameron has just announced one of the grandest censorship schemes ever attempted. His goal is to filter the entire Internet of pornography, for all Britons save those who request it:

“By the end of this year, when someone sets up a new broadband account, the settings to install family-friendly filters will be automatically selected. If you just click ‘next’ or ‘enter,’ then the filters are automatically on.”

National Post columnist Barbara Kay was quick to chime in with her approval.  “The U.K.’s example,” she wrote, “is worth following.”

In fanciful language, Kay decries modern pornography, which unlike the chaste erotica of yore does not depict what she deems “normative” sex, but instead a troubling “range of human sexual lubricity and depravity.” Anointing herself an expert on juvenile masturbators, she instructs us that “contrary to what one might assume, (kids) are not watching for arousal, but as a guide to their own future actual performance.”

I get it: Kay hates porn. Or, at least, she hates modern porn, citing a preference for 19th century naughty postcards. I won’t quibble with her predilections, but I will say that today’s fare offers something for everyone. Pre-Internet, horny teens were served up one-size-fits-all sexuality by any dirty magazine swiped from a 7-Eleven. This “normative” sex was straight sex between macho men and skinny white women. Whether kids seek porn to get off or to get educated — isn’t it both? — I’m glad the full “range of depravity” is available.

Many won’t agree. Many parents don’t want kids watching any kind of porn. Many share Kay’s hatred of modern porn. There’s much to hate about it. All that is fine, but it’s not the issue.

The issue is technological. It’s much more interesting to discuss sex than computers, but I’m afraid there’s no way to avoid engagement with the basic practical impossibility of any porn-filtration scheme.

You simply can’t block all Internet porn, and you can’t avoid blocking things that aren’t porn when you try. Whether a filter uses blacklists or keywords or image analysis to hunt down fleshy pixels, it will always be fooled by porn that wants to fool it, and it will always result in false positives: content that an algorithm classifies as porn when it isn’t. Even if the failure rate is tiny (and it never is), this margin of error will always be large enough to render the filter useless for its intended purpose while massively destructive in terms of collateral damage.

It’s the Internet, after all. There are billions of pages.  If a filter misses a fraction of a per cent, that could easily constitute 1 million pages of accessible porn, enough of a selection to ensure kids who want smut will find it. Meanwhile, if the filter incorrectly blocks a fraction of a per cent, the government will have accidentally censored 1 million pages of non-pornographic free expression.

(And it might not be accidental. When Australia’s government tried to filter porn in 2007, its secret blacklist, later leaked, was found to include non-pornographic sites containing political criticism.)

I’m not comfortable with those numbers.  I’m not comfortable with private companies that consult secret blacklists and run filters for governments that decide what I can and can’t see.

I’m not even convinced we have a problem.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown