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Will 'Porn Lock' in UK and France Lead to Internet Censorship?

Dec 20, 2010 – 5:56 PM
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Dana Kennedy

Dana Kennedy Contributor

Just days after France passed legislation requiring Internet service providers to block child-pornography websites, British officials said they want to block all porn on the Web. Critics of both "porn lock" initiatives say they may be the first steps in controlling the Internet in those countries.

Ed Vaizey, Britain's communications minister, told the Sunday Times the government is considering a plan to restrict pornography websites to protect children from seeing them.

"This is a very serious matter. I think it is very important that it's the ISPs that some up with solutions to protect children," Vaizey said.

Vaizey plans to meet with the country's Internet service providers soon about a proposal that would mean blocking porn sites so children wouldn't be exposed to them rather than relying on existing parental controls. Customers would have to "opt-in" if they wanted access to pornography sites.

"I'm hoping they will get their acts together so that we don't have to legislate," Vaizey said. "But we are keeping an eye on the situation and we will have a new communications bill in the next couple of years."

Opponents of the measures say the government is using legitimate concerns over kiddie porn and the early sexualization of children who access adult porn online as a way to gain control of the Web. Britain has already had success with measures designed to block kiddie-porn sites.

"It's like they want to play God on the Internet," Gilles Lordet, the Paris-based chief editor of Reporters Without Borders, told AOL News today.

"Nobody wants to be seen as fighting an attempt to cut down on kiddie porn or on children watching porn online. But it's a very slippery slope to more censorship. We know that in a lot of undemocratic countries they start with censoring porn and they move on to other sites," Lordet said.

Last week, France's National Assembly passed a bill that is part of the controversial LOPPSI 2 -- a law on guidelines and programming for the performance of internal security -- allowing the government to filter the Internet without any judicial oversight.

The bill, expected to be approved by the Senate and become law next year, is designed so that the Ministry of the Interior can draw up a blacklist of kiddie-porn sites and tell the ISPs to block them.

Some ISPs in the U.S. reached a more open agreement in 2008 with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to purge their servers of child-porn-related newsgroups as well as kiddie-porn websites identified by a regularly updated registry.

But critics of the French bill worry that giving the government unfettered power in making a blacklist could mean increased blocking of other undesirable sites.

"If you can suppress any content on the Internet you can suppress it all," John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told AOL News today. "What these laws will do is requires ISPs to become censorious."

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During a parliamentary debate last month in the U.K., Claire Perry, a Conservative MP who wants stricter Internet controls, said that 60 percent of 9- to 19-year-olds had watched porn online, calling the Web "the Wild West." Perry also said that only 15 percent of computer-literate parents knew how to use filters to block access to certain sites, the Guardian reported today.

Such statistics are hard to argue with, but experts say the larger picture is more complicated.

"Anytime you see countries move in the same way restricting access to information, it may be with the best of intentions," said Erik Sherman, a BNET analyst. "But suddenly it becomes about other things. And look clearly at the U.K.'s plan to let people 'opt-in' for porn sites. Opting in is a way to register people. Think about that."
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