Is censorship the right response to protecting children?

Posted on February 20, 2012 at 11:16 am,

Gillan at God and Politics UK has a post in support of plans to force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block pornographic material. However, he hasn’t really considered whether such a policy is actually going to make a difference, so I thought I’d fill in the gap.

Firstly, the best way to protect children from harmful content online is parental supervision. Even if there are filters on both the ISP and the home computer, some harmful material will still get through. Parents should take responsibility for taking whatever methods they feel necessary to protect their kids online. Filter software on the home computer, making sure that it is in a family area, rather than the kids bedrooms, and checking up what their kids have been up to online are basic common sense. Parents will need to do the same things to protect their children whether or not the ISPs filter out some harmful content. The danger is that some parents will assume that the ISP’s filter will protect their kids, and hence shirk their responsibility.

Secondly, filters will inevitably block some perfectly innocent content. The Australian government has a filter intended to stop child pornography. When the list of sites was leaked in 2009, it turned out that about half the sites should not have been on the list. Blocked sites included online poker, youtube videos, “regular” porn sites, Wikipedia entries, euthanasia sites, websites of fringe religions, fetish sites, Christian sites, the website of a tour operator and even a Queensland dentist. If a filter designed just to stop the most extreme and objectionable pornographic material blocked so many sites outside its remit, imagine how much a filter designed to stop all porn would block. And because the filter would be on your ISP’s server, rather than your computer, you wouldn’t even be able to adjust it when you discovered that it had got it wrong. Nor would you be able to change its settings if your definition of pornographic material differs from theirs.

So, in short, the proposed policy is almost certainly the wrong approach to the problem. It’s not possible to block all harmful material, and any attempt to do so will block a whole load of material that isn’t harmful. The most effective way of protecting our children is to teach parents how to do it themselves.

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