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Censoring online porn: A Rorschach test for Internet freedom

Protesters hold black posters to symbolize censorship


On Monday, while the Commonwealth was watching for a Royal Baby, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his government was going to filter the Internet to stop pornography from flowing into the homes of Prince George's future subjects. As a public policy announcement it was a case of epic bad timing – unless you are conspiracy-minded, in which case it seemed designed to fly under the radar.

Reader response to Mr. Cameron's idea fell into three categories:


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B) Good, everyone who watches porn is a pervert and probably a pedophile.

C) A pox on all your houses, this is a bad issue to take a stand on and it won't work anyway.

One reader summed up the confused, if more moderate side of the reaction quite well: "Is there room for a compromise? I don't want to block anyone's access to boobs and consensual sex vids, but I don't think most Canadians want to stumble upon (or have their kids stumble upon) videos of someone violently and forcibly violating someone else, or images that are obviously the result of violent extortion, usually for drugs and the like. Having a basic filter against the worst stuff, that can be readily removed at will, on demand, doesn't seem like a bad idea."

This even-handed response doesn't resemble Mr. Cameron's plan: He said he would stop all forms of explicitly sexual imagery offered by Internet service providers – not just the "worst stuff" – for any new accounts created after the law is enacted, allegedly later this year. Users would still be allowed to access legal erotica if they contacted their ISPs and said, as one waggish reader suggested, "Please, sir, may I have some porn." (For existing accounts, it's the status quo, watch as much as you like.)

Still, despite its voluntary nature, our commenters latched on the Great Anti-Porn Filter of London as the target of their ire. Many who claim to never watch the stuff argued that any government Internet censorship would be very similar to the kind of blockers that exist in Iran, Syria, China and other bastions of free expression. "Sure, coming soon to a legislature near you, sex crime. Next up, thought crime," wrote one reader.

But there was another view, which urged everyone to calm down, because this plan was plainly impossible: "In the near future, the belief that one can control the Internet will be duly listed as a psychological condition," wrote one reader. "Eliminating pornography from the Internet ... and this afternoon I plan to extinguish light from the sun," agreed another.

Perhaps the best comment on the conundrum of these proposals is the one in the Reddit discussions of our coverage. One Reddit reader wrote, "I kind of think that it's legislation like this that forces people to pick a side, to determine what they believe in." That's true enough: Issues like these can be a bit of an Internet-freedom Rorschach test, sometimes you will see what you are predisposed to see.

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Eventually even Mr. Cameron came around to the idea that his incredibly broad proposal will be somewhat narrower when it comes time to implement, telling The Independent newspaper, "I'm not saying we've thought of everything and there will be many problems down the line as we deal with this, but we're trying to crunch through these problems and work out what you can do and can't do."

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About the Author
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More


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