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Sorting the Great British Firewall

<b>commentary</b> The U.K. is in a heated argument over protecting kids from online porn with mandatory ISP filters. But copyright interests are also involved, so let's untangle the conspiracy theories.

5 min read

The U.K. is holding a fiery debate over the free and open Internet and how to protect kids from the perils of online porn. The drama-filled saga has enough cartoonish details and self-serving characters in it to fill out an entire Guy Ritchie film -- sadly, sans the comic relief. Or even cute little dogs.

Even though content filters are available, religious organizations and conservatives think the government needs to force ISPs into default filtering. On this bandwagon, loud and proud, are tabloids such as the Sun and Daily Mail.

Under the default filter plans, customers of internet service providers would receive, by default, a filtered version of the Internet. Customers that do not want restricted Internet access will need to "opt in" to accessing the Internet uncensored.

Meanwhile, mobile networks already provide content filters -- and new reports find that these filters are so far-reaching they block more than needed, from travel sites to Internet tools such as Tor.

A variety of factions stand to gain (and lose) in the years-long push to force a regulated Internet on UK citizens. Some argue that it's to be an opt-in system, and so it isn't really as Draconian as anti-censorship pundits suggest. But as key players voice their interests and intent, the reasoning behind U.K. ISP filters, and how its proponents are discussing wider implementation, just doesn't add up.

Opposed factions are calling the porn filter GBF -- the Great British Firewall.

Here's lock, stock, and two smoking conspiracy theories about who stands to gain from the GBF, and why:

Conspiracy theory #1: Copyright lobbyists are working with MPs
The pro-filter alliance between conservatives concerned about children and copyright lobbyists is a curious set of bedfellows. It has some "big brother" and anti-censorship websites wondering if there's more to the relationship than meets the eye.

The MP leading the default filtering charge is Claire Perry; her stance to protect the children of Britain is to make Internet service providers responsible for access to online porn.

Like anti-porn pundits in America, Perry's arguments about the harms of pornography have gone unsupported by unbiased data or clinical studies. Her report ("the whole history of human sexual perversion is only a few clicks away") is referred to on anti-censorship sites as "scaremongering."

When the Pirate Bay was recently sentenced to a blocking order, Perry was on every media outlet that would take her, wasting no time on a May 1st BBC Radio 4 show comparing Pirate Bay to pedophiles.

To stop the spread of illegal material, Perry said that the Internet needs to be regulated "like all other media."

Indeed, content filtering system Cleanfeed (used by Britain's largest internet provider, BT) was recently extended from blocking child sexual abuse and criminally obscene content to also blocking sites that link to copyrighted material.

In June 2011, the MPAA took British Telecom to court to force its use of Cleanfeed toward specific file-sharing websites.

It certainly seems that conflating copyright infringement with pornographic material could be useful to Perry and anti-filesharing entities, especially seeing how easy it is to tack onto filters already in place. The Register pointed out that the Pirate Bay ban was quickly "hijacked by the anti-smut brigade."

But it's entirely possible that Perry really is clueless about the technical aspects of her moral charge, and thus is simply taking advantage of an opportunity to spread the word about her cause.

Perry and copyright lobbyists certainly want to filter the Internet for UK citizens. It's a bit of a stretch to think they're "in bed together."

Conspiracy theory #2: Murdoch Inc. hates competition
U.K. tabloids like the Sun and Daily Mail have been trumpeting the call to force Internet filters on U.K. citizens. Many are wondering, what's in it for them?

Recent articles have pointed out that this anti-porn campaign seems hypocritical since The Sun -- whose "Dear Deidre" advice columnist was bizarrely the first official expert witness on network level filtering of porn -- is infamous for its "page three girls".

That's a reference to photos of sexy topless women the Sun has traditionally run on, well, page 3. They're quite easy to access -- just buy a paper and turn the page. Even stranger is that "Dear Deidre" has gone on record defending the page-three spreads, saying that they're fine because the Sun's editor thinks they're OK, and "nine million people read it."

Many people are confused as to what an "agony aunt" advice columnist is doing advising MPs about protecting children from Internet pornography.

The Daily Mail, also big on soft-core spreads with no age restrictions, is a huge proponent of mandatory ISP level filters -- to "protect the children," of course.

The tabloid recently ran a series supportive of pressuring the government to force ISP-level filtering, citing studies and reports to bolster its arguments that have been called dodgy at best by pundits quoted in their level-headed rival, the BBC.

The News Corp. entity's latest spin was a headline stating that Prime Minister David Cameron was "stepping in" to "safeguard children" -- giving the impression that dad was home now and the discussion was settled, despite the fact that the matter was still very much under debate.

So what do seemingly hypocritical media outlets stand to gain from shouting the government into erecting the Great British Firewall?

Some say that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. outlets are keen to quash competition in any way they can.

Conspiracy minded commenters on more than a few sites have theorized that since the Times is paywalled, with more censorship of Internet content comes the possibility for tighter copyright controls, or at least potential to charge more for their content.

This theory has a little weight in light of 2010 numbers revealing that the Times UK lost 4 million readers after erecting its paywall.

Of course, it's no secret that Rupert Murdoch wants both paywalls and anti-piracy legislation, at any cost, as evidenced in his well-documented and unwavering support for SOPA/PIPA and his frequent Twitter rants saying as much.

So for our Great British Firewall conspiracy theories we have tabloids and topless teens, a loopy "agony aunt," an aging and allegedly corrupt media magnate, a Prime Minister under pressure, pirates and copyright lobbies... and the possibility that citizens of the U.K. will see Internet access taken out of their hands.

If Guy Ritchie could direct the film adaptation of this craziness and all its conspiracy theories, at least we'd be laughing during the fight scenes.