Will UK Internet Companies Start Filtering Esoteric Content?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 29, 2013 — 18 Comments

I’ve long taken a keen interest in the business of Internet filtering, and how its genesis with conservative Christian social values have reverberated far beyond that niche market. However, Internet filtering issues aren’t isolated to America, and the UK is currently embroiled in a controversy over mandatory “opt-out” filters for adult content.

David Cameron

UK Prime Minister David Cameron

“Most households in the UK will have pornography blocked by their internet provider unless they choose to receive it, David Cameron has announced. […] Mr Cameron warned in a speech that access to online pornography was “corroding childhood”. The new measures will apply to both existing and new customers. Mr Cameron also called for some “horrific” internet search terms to be “blacklisted”, meaning they would automatically bring up no results on websites such as Google or Bing.”

That announcement last week was enough to generate a lot of debate over access to information,  which only intensified when it was discovered that the filtering company that would implement Prime Minister Cameron’s deal with the four biggest ISPs was Chinese firm Huawei.

“The [Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC)] committee said ‘the alleged links between Huawei and the Chinese State are concerning, as they generate suspicion as to whether Huawei’s intentions are strictly commercial or are more political’ – but added that it had not found any evidence of wrongdoing.”

On top of that, was a troubling revelation that the “opt out” filter may be filtering a lot more than porn.

“The essential detail is that they will assume you want filters enabled across a wide range of content, and unless you un-tick the option, network filters will be enabled. As we’ve said repeatedly, it’s not just about hardcore pornography.”

One of those filtering categories? According to Open Rights Group, “broad indications” from ISPs point to “esoteric material” being one of the default opt-out filtering categories. This broader opt-out mandate is being reported by Wired and The Huffington Post, though no further details about what, exactly, would be included in an “esoteric material” category.

“What’s clear here is that David Cameron wants people to sleepwalk into censorship. We know that people stick with defaults: this is part of the idea behind ‘nudge theory’ and ‘choice architecture’ that is popular with Cameron. […] The implication is that filtering is good, or at least harmless, for anyone, whether adult or child. Of course, this is not true; there’s not just the question of false positives for web users, but the affect on a network economy of excluding a proportion of a legitimate website’s audience.” – Jim Killock, Open Rights Group

Which brings us back to the genesis of Internet filtering, the confluence of socially conservative religious groups and Internet policy. Where will the site lists for default blocked categories come from? Will they, like some institutional filters, block Pagan sites? A long history of Pagan engagement with these filters points to it being a reasonable assumption. The trouble is that we most likely won’t know until the filter is already in place, and Cameron has intimated that he was willing to legislate compliance if the ISPs balk at his plan. For now, Open Rights Group has launched a petition to stop David Cameron from “sleepwalking into censorship.”

“Adult filtering amounts to censoring legal content. The UK would be the only modern democratic society to do this. This sets a terrible example to other countries with interests in suppressing information.”

We don’t know, exactly, what will and won’t be blocked once the filters are enabled. It could vary among providers. The list printed by Open Rights Group is based on “brief conversations with some of the Internet Service Providers” that will be putting the filters in place. According to ORG, “they [the ISPs] will assume you want filters enabled across a wide range of content,” and “esoteric material” is a default category gleaned from “broad indications” and “current mobil configurations.” Sophia Catherine, of the Divine Community podcast, warns against over-reaction.

“Open Rights have NOT said that ‘esoteric content’ will be censored. This is a misinterpretation of their article, which has been doing the rounds online for a couple of days, and which they have edited their article in an attempt to counter. I quote from their article on the subject: “The category examples are based on current mobile configurations and broad indications from ISP” (i.e. this is a guess based on a few informal trend), and “The precise pre-ticked options may vary from service to service.” I think it is incredibly important not to jump to conclusions before any research has been done into this story. The fact is that nobody knows if ‘esoteric content’ will be filtered or not, and the signs at the moment suggest that it will not be filtered by default – if it is, it will happen service-provider-by-service provider. It is so important to get facts straight when we’re campaigning about incidents that may affect the Pagan community. And this is an overreaction based on incomplete information.”

Despite these uncertainties, it is important that our communities pay close attention to the implementation of this filter, and make sure access to Pagan and esoteric religious content is not blocked. I will be following up on this story as it develops, and will consult with UK Pagan leaders and clergy.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://leithincluan.wordpress.com/ Naomi Catherine Jacobs

    Open Rights have NOT said that ‘esoteric content’ will be censored. This is a misinterpretation of their article, which has been doing the rounds online for a couple of days, and which they have edited their article in an attempt to counter. I quote from their article on the subject: “The category examples are based on current mobile configurations and broad indications from ISP” (i.e. this is a guess based on a few informal trend), and “The precise pre-ticked options may vary from service to service.” I think it is incredibly important not to jump to conclusions before any research has been done into this story. The fact is that nobody knows if ‘esoteric content’ will be filtered or not, and the signs at the moment suggest that it will not be filtered by default – if it is, it will happen service-provider-by-service provider. It is so important to get facts straight when we’re campaigning about incidents that may affect the Pagan community. And this is an overreaction based on incomplete information. – Sophia Catherine, Divine Community podcast

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      I’m not jumping to conclusions. I’ve phrased my headline as a question, I’ve made no call to actions, and said that there’s much we don’t know. I’ll add your rebuttal as an addendum to the piece.

      • http://leithincluan.wordpress.com/ Naomi Catherine Jacobs

        Thanks.

        • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

          Please refresh and check out the closing now.

          • http://leithincluan.wordpress.com/ Naomi Catherine Jacobs

            That sounds sufficiently cautious, and thank you for editing with my warning. Much appreciated.

          • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

            No problem, I try to get stories right, and I’m always open to alternate takes on a story. Thanks for speaking up!

    • Kenneth

      So if it’s not 100% established that “esoteric” content is not a primary target of censorship, then the pagan community has no reason to be upset?

      First off, of course esoteric content will be filtered, at some level. Censorship regimes, which attempt to establish a parent-child relationship between the state and adults, always err on the side of lowest-common-denominator “safe” content. They are also unaccountable and non-transparent in the factors that drive their censorship, including the personal religious biases of the officials involved in the decisions.

      Whether filtered as “esoteric” or not, huge volumes of material will be lost to the average person because sexual imagery, the violent events in myths, the counter-cultural themes of past occultists, etc. all will be considered “dangerous” by someone. This material will simply vanish from the information infrastructure that most people now use as their primary source. Most insidious of all, people, most of them, after a very short while, won’t even know what they’re missing. That is the ultimate aim of any censorship regime, and it is also the crux of what the Dark Ages were about.

      Second, even if we had an airtight written agreement that no “esoteric” content (whatever that comprises), would be filtered, the policy is repugnant to everything worthwhile the pagan community I have known has ever stood for. Pagan religion went extinct, or nearly so, for centuries precisely because governments were able to control the flow of information and the boundaries of “safe” thought.

      Yes, for the sake of news stories and discussion, we should always strive to “get the facts straight.” I’m having real trouble envisioning what other facts might emerge about this scheme which would make it remotely acceptable to me as a pagan or human being. I also cannot see how any opposition or skepticism about this, within the bounds of law and peace, could be considered an “overreaction.”

  • Dscarron

    By definition as a minority religion, we are going to have problems like this crop up from time to time. Not that we should take it. But it’s something to expect.

  • Kulkulkan

    It is sad irony to censor “esoteric” sites since the core of Wicca, Thelema, ceremonial magick, etc. is made in Britain!

  • Evan Camomile

    Allow me to rephrase a famous poem.

    First they came for the pornographers,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a pornographer.

    Then they came for the extremists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t an extremist.

    Then they came for the bigots,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a bigot.

    Then they came for me,
    and there was no one left to speak for me.

    You may not like pornography, extremism, or bigots, but there are those who would lump the esoteric and pagan websites in the same camps. This is why freedom of press and freedom of speech are very important, even though they can also allow for such unpleasant things.

    “I do not agree with what you have to say, bu I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    This is just typical of ‘our’ government. It is (apparently) widely believed in Westminster that we, the peasantry, are incapable of setting our own personal boundaries but that we need nannying for our own protection.

    Westminster is so out of touch as to be all but obsolete.

    • Jason Hatter

      That seems to be a universal description of any governing “class” it seems.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Most likely. However I can only comment on my own government.

        (At the risk of being overly political on a religious site, I am a regionalist and anti-globalist.)

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Anyone who knows anything at all about cybersecurity would bang their head on their desk at the notion of having a Chinese company handle who in the UK gets to see what.

    • The_L1985

      Believe me, that’s not the only reason I’m head-desking.

  • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

    Making internet filtering the default is doubleplusungood.

    • The_L1985

      Indeed. I thought this was 2013, not 1984.

  • Joseph Thiebes

    I understand that many universities in UK already censor esoteric materials, and that there is plenty of anti-masonic sentiment to inspire an “esoteric panic.” This movement and the notions that lead to it may deserve to be countered where it manifests.

    A group is forming to counter the movement toward such censorship and to counter the notions that lead to censorship of esoteric materials, which is developing a website, petitions, and so on. They have a Facebook page currently:

    https://www.facebook.com/freespirit.info