Wednesday , 28 October 2020

How the UK is Forcing Internet Censorship—Even of Esoteric Sites

Yesterday we reported that the United Kingdom is setting up a massive blockade around the Internet, censoring not just porn but even message boards and esoteric websites.

Specifically, UK internet service providers will be required to block sites that the government deems unacceptable—including porn, violent material, extremist sites, pro-anorexia and pro-suicide sites, alcohol and smoking, web forums, esoteric material and even software for circumventing the block. Individual users will be able to opt out of the filter, though it will be set “on” by default.

Many commenters on the original blog post and on Facebook suggested that this isn’t actually censorship, or a problem, because users can opt out of the filter. This misses a couple of points:

1. Most web users will not be savvy or aware enough to change filter settings—and if citizens are raised with filters on, most won’t even know what they don’t know. They won’t be able to go looking for information they don’t know exists;

2. Anybody who requests that their filter be turned off to allow them to access adult and sensitive material can, in theory, be immediately profiled by the government as a potential source of trouble;

3. As we’ve seen in the United States, give authoritarians an inch and they’ll take a mile. Once you agree to censorship, legislators may keep slowly extending the boundaries of what it’s permissible to censor.

Anybody who requests that their filter be turned off to allow them to access adult and sensitive material can, in theory, be immediately profiled by the government as a potential source of trouble.

Computer World UK has a very on-point summary of the potential ramifications:

[Many have answered] well, just opt in to the material you want: what’s the problem? Well, the problem was pointed out succinctly by Mikko Hypponen on Twitter. His tweet shows a mock-up of an option box for accessing extremist and terrorist related content, with the minor addition at the end:

(Your choice might be used against you in a court of law)

That encapsulates brilliantly the real problem with opt-in: it requires you to make a non-secret declaration that you want to access a certain class of material, some of which might be socially unacceptable, to say the least. The first time this fact is used in court – divorce cases seem an area where it could be relevant – most people will naturally start to leave certain “dodgy” categories of sites blocked in case it reflects badly on them.

In other words, the opt-in scheme threatens to move us beyond creeping censorship – bad enough in itself – to something far worse, because not so visible: creeping self-censorship. That is truly the Chinese model, where online users know that there are certain lines that cannot be crossed, and who therefore never write or discuss certain forbidden topics because they have interiorised the government’s restrictions.

And on that note of comparison to China, it’s been revealed that HomeSafe, a filter used by UK ISP TalkTalk, which David Cameron has pointed to as the model of how UK Internet censorship should be conducted, is operated by Huawei, a Chinese company that has been alleged to maintain tight bonds with the Chinese government—Ren Zhengfei, the company’s founder, previously served as an officer in the People’s Liberation Army.

The Open Rights Group(who are maintaining a petition against the new measures here) have commented that Cameron’s proposed block is an instance of social engineering, explaining that the Cameron government regularly uses “choice architecture” (forcing an outcome by presenting a limited set of choices which all lead to results favorable for the party proposing the choices) and nudge theory.

Nudge theory, developed at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and popularized at the time of Barack Obama’s election in the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, is a behavioral science model favored by both David Cameron and Obama. It broadly suggests that authority figures use positive reinforcement and indirect “nudges” or suggestions instead of punishment or outright coercion. (In the neuro-linguistic programming world this is called “permissive hypnosis,” and has long been found to be more effective than authoritarian commands.) I suspect that Nudge Theory, NLP and other soft-sell techniques have defined the Obama/Cameron era largely in response to the massive public outcry against both men’s respective predecessors. Cameron’s government specifically employs a partially-privatized Behavioural Insights Team, nicknamed the “Nudge Unit,” specifically to implement nudge theory to save government funds.

True to soft-authoritarian nudge theory, Internet users will not be given the option whether or not they want the filters on. The filters will be automatically on, and users will have to opt out, thereby potentially identifying themselves as sources of trouble. Meanwhile, the rest of the population will be softly corralled into Internet censorship while a veneer of freedom and choice are maintained. UK protest groups are calling the Cameron government’s approach “Sleepwalking into censorship.” Shout Out UK even called the new filters “CISPA in disguise.”

Sadly, the days of reasonably writing any of this off as overthinking or conspiracy theory have long since gone by the wayside post-PRISM. UK-based ISP Andrews & Arnold publicly attacked the Cameron government over the blockade, refusing to implement the filters and publicly stating “Sorry, for a censored internet you will have to pick a different ISP or move to North Korea.”

Below, David Cameron explains the necessity of the filters to block child pornography. All very well and good—but, why all of the other material, including esoteric websites?



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