If ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise


I was sent a link to a story on the Forbes web site. Ostensibly it was about recent developments in respect of the use of online content filters in the UK. Except it wasn’t.

The guy who wrote the piece is called Tim Worstall. He is a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute so I’m guessing he is not a moron. That being so likely as not he is just lazy. Either way it is clear Tim has no idea what is going on. However, Worstall is plainly not the sort of chap who would allow trivial concerns about facts to get in the way of his settled prejudices.

First of all we are told the UK has decided that all ISPs must deploy opt-in pornography filters. Not a good start Tim. That’s wrong. What has happened is the Big Four, that is the UK’s four largest ISPs, have decided to offer their customers free filters to deal with a range of adult content. In fact the filters have been available to the Big Four’s customers for some time and pornography is one of the categories they cover. It is not by any means the only one, but what the heck? Why clutter the narrative with extraneous details?

What has happened is that by the end of this year all new customers will have to make a decision about whether or not they want to use the filters. Nobody is obliged to take them up much less use them. It is easy to decline by just clicking no. By the end of 2014 all existing customers will  be asked if they are interested. Moreover remember this initiative applies solely to domestic account holders. It does not touch or concern business users at all.  Worstall fails to mention any of this. He conjures an image of a dark blanket of Government imposed censorship descending across our benighted isles.

No law or regulation

Will the hundreds of smaller ISPs in the UK follow suit? Who knows? Each company has to decide for itself. My guess is most will mimic their larger competitors but some definitely will not. We have a free market in internet provision so we’ll see how consumers react.

So for the avoidance of doubt: Parliament did not pass a law or approve a regulation compelling any ISPs to offer filters.

Will this initiative result in any content currently available online being deleted or becoming impossible to reach by anyone and everyone within the UK? No. Yet that’s what most people imagine when they hear a word like censorship  being bandied about.

Will the filters result in certain types of content being less readily accessible to persons whom the relevant publishers never wanted as customers in the first place? That’s the basic idea.

Was there pressure from the Government, Members of Parliament, the media and child safety campaigners to move in the direction of opt-in filters? Yes. But there was no compulsion, no must. The UK did not decide anything. Individual companies acted in accordance with what they perceived to be their commercial best interests.

The word pornography has become a barrier to understanding 

Worstall’s ideological predisposition against what he sees as nanny-statism and his ignorance surface once more when he suggests that, behind this chicanery, are people like me who

insist that teenage boys looking at naked people is going to bring about the very fall of our civilization

At this point I am considering abandoning this blog. Worstall is so far off the mark it’s embarrassing. Is it cruel to carry on exposing his palpable shortcomings? Hmmm, but then I remind myself nonsense like Worstall’s will be repeated ad nauseam in the smug blogosphere where preaching to the choir is the order of the day. If the numbers are to be believed his scribblings on Forbes have apparently already had over 600,000 views thus proving once again the wisdom of Mark Twain

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes

Regrettably, like Worstall many people do think pornography is about pictures of naked people. They probably have in mind Playboy c. 1980 or films like Confessions of a Window Cleaner. They are stuck in a time warpI can only assume Tim and his ilk have never visited any of the sites child protection people actually have in mind. Nudity is not pornography. Three men beating a woman while they are involved in simultaneous acts of rape -that would be more the kind of thing I hope the filters will keep away from the eyes of eight year olds.

Shock, horror, revelation. Not.

Then, lordy lordy, we are treated to a blinding flash of the sort of intellectual insight for which Fellows of the Adam Smith Institute are justly famed. Worstall has discovered that the software being used by the ISPs is not perfect and mistakes can be made.  Filters can overblock. My, my. If only I’d known. Of course most technologies usually arrive neatly wrapped and finished, with clear instructions, in perfect shape, in need of no tweaking or further improvement. These cursed filters that are being forced upon an unwilling nation by the Great Helmsman Cameron don’t even work! Genius.

Incidentally Worstall makes no attempt to conceal his contempt for some of our democratic institutions, as in

Given what they do with our money I suppose you can indeed decide that Parliament and the Government are forms of pornography

We have a choice

Are filters my preferred option for dealing with a range of content challenges on the internet? No. I would much rather there was no need for filters. Every parent would be able to read and understand the language in which information about online safety was presented, they would absorb it all and communicate it effectively to their offspring through sitting down and constructively engaging with them.

But what about very young children, where no amount of effective parental communication is likely to do the trick? In the UK 37% of 3-4 year olds are already going on the internet. My hope with them would be that their access to the internet would always be closely monitored and supported by a responsible adult.

However this is simply not the reality in a great many modern families. You can either say that’s unfortunate for the children in such families but there’s nothing that can be done about it or you can decide to try to tackle or ameliorate the problem as best you can in other ways.

Filters can help families with children, particularly families with younger children, but no one should ever suggest they are going to be a complete answer. What the Big Four are doing is simply making it easier for parents to avail themselves of the help filters can provide if they feel they want it. The Big Four are going to spend £25 million on a public awareness campaign, part of which is aimed squarely at parents to help them understand both what filters can do and what they can’t and probably never will.

Overblocking is an issue. It will diminish though probably never disappear completely. Small companies will come into the market and set new, high technical standards of accuracy.  MetaCert is such a company that I have commented on before. But one thing is for sure: if we don’t use filters at all they will never get better. We need them to be.