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UK government plans for ISPs to censor your websites

The government wants to outsource censorship of the Web to ISPs. Ed Vaizey has proposed a plan to have ISPs delete content from websites if anyone complains.

The government wants to outsource censorship of the Web to ISPs. Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, proposes a 'mediation service' that could see Internet service providers deleting content if anyone complains, based on the service provided by domain name registrar Nominet to resolve disputes over domain names.

In a speech to MPs, Vaizey quoted a story told to him by a parliamentary chum in which a women's refuge shelter had its address published online and was unable to have it removed.

We agree ISPs should provide an avenue for communication so genuine cases like that can be resolved -- but what Vaizey proposes sounds more like washing government hands of the Web and giving private companies the power to censor our Web browsing without court involvement.

As with most ideas emananting from the gubmint, there are a number of gaping holes in the plan, evident to anyone who's ever spent more than five seconds using the technology. For a start, investigating and acting on complaints would be time-consuming and technically complicated. How ISPs would censor material they aren't hosting is beyond us.

If a public complaint is all that's required to begin the censorship process, it's open to abuse from companies or individuals looking to prevent themselves from being exposed. ISPs are already expected to remove illegal content, which is fine, but there's a big difference between illegal content and content that bothers someone enough to complain about.

Imagine corporate legal legions or secretive individuals springing into action to kill a news story about the latest oil spill, a politician's pecadillo or a celebrity slip-up. Under that kind of pressure, we wouldn't blame ISPs for erring on the side of caution and censoring first, asking questions later. That isn't a responsibility ISPs should be burdened with.

Even worse, complaints could be made by anyone who wants to censor anything they disagree with. Imagine if Nokia fans decided they were so put out by our review of the N8 and had the power to have the review deleted, instead of sharing their thoughts in the comments. Imagine if iPhone-haters decided to expunge any mention of the fruit-flavoured phones from CNET UK.

And that's just practical considerations: there are also the moral implications of the government farming out censorship.

Tell us your thoughts in the comments. Is this a solution in search of a problem? Does anybody voting for legislation like the Digital Economy Act actually know anything about the Internet? Is Vaizey on to something, or is his idea yet more clueless politico grandstanding?