Will UK Internet Companies Start Filtering Esoteric Content?

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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.