* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Overzealous filters can assume any web page containing the words gay or lesbian is automatically porn-related
Simon Migliano is head of research at Top10VPN.com
In the past few months, the government has taken a series of steps to protect web users, limiting their digital experiences to content that MPs deem palatable.
But while the moralistic overtones of the so-called “porn ban” and the implications of the government’s research into online harm have been portrayed as an attempt to censor the internet, I can see the point.
Young people need to be shielded from the toxic wilds of the internet.
But we have focused too much on whether the government is right to impose restrictions on certain online content.
MPs have failed to ask about the practicalities of how to police something as decentralised as the internet without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Existing efforts to do so have met at great cost for only middling success, with online communities, such as LGBT+ users, caught in the crossfire.
We have been here before. In 2011, internet providers, backed by the British government, introduced online filters designed to protect children by blocking access to websites deemed “harmful”.
These filters, which are implemented by all the major broadband and mobile internet service providers (ISPs), and switched on by default, have blocked more than 700,000 websites over the past two years and are currently active in more than 3.7m households across the UK – and that’s not counting smartphone users.
But these crude, often keyword-based, blocks lack the sort of nuance to do this job properly. Of these 700,000 sites, thousands offering support to sexual abuse victims, advice to people suffering from drug addiction and information about mental health have fallen foul of these unsophisticated automated systems and have been blocked.
LGBT+ sites, from gay or trans magazines to sexual health charities and regional branches of Stonewall, have been caught by dozens of overzealous filters that assume any web page containing the words “gay” or “lesbian” is automatically porn-related.
Countless other charities, schools and small businesses have found themselves cut off. Perhaps more disconcertingly, since website blocks are inconsistently applied across ISPs, many site-owners simply aren’t aware they may be blocked by providers other than those they use themselves.
Filters that were set up with the intention of protecting vulnerable users online are actually stopping at-need adults from accessing essential services.
This issue is compounded by the uncertainty of getting “innocent” sites unblocked.
There is no appeals process to contest decisions by broadband providers for example, while the response rate in rectifying these issues is unacceptably low – almost three in 10 (27.6 percent) unblock requests to ISPs from 2018 are still unresolved.
What this serves to underline is just how badly a scheme employing wide-ranging blocks, no matter how well-intentioned, can misfire.
A porn ban that seeks to keep underage users away from adult material looks set to drive people “underground” and towards much more toxic and unregulated parts of the internet.
The thought is in the right place but the execution lacks an understanding of how to tackle something as complex and multi-faceted as the internet.
The government’s attempt to rein in the extremes of the internet is laudable, but who defines what that actually means? For many LGBT+ people, already marginalised by society by the fact of their sexuality, does this mean they are also excluded online for what many straight people take for granted?