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The idea of setting up mandatory blocks around pornography isn’t new and has been floated in Canada off and on for years, said Tom Copeland, chairman of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers.

Jordan Silverman/AP

The controversial British plan to block access to pornography websites unless Internet customers explicitly opt-in has been discussed in Canada but Internet service providers have thus far fought it off, according to the head of an industry group.

On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he's asking ISPs to restrict access to pornographic websites that are "corroding childhood" and hopes the filtering system will be in place by year's end. Cameron also said he wants to make it illegal to possess violent pornography that portrays rape, and urged search engines to block queries for illegal content.

The idea of setting up mandatory blocks around pornography isn't new and has been floated in Canada off and on for years, said Tom Copeland, chairman of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers.

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"The discussion has gone on forever and a day, mostly it starts around child pornography and what can be done to combat it and whether or not Internet service providers can play a role, or should play a role," Copeland said.

"And then every once in a while somebody decides, 'Well, we need to take this further, it needs to include general pornography sites' —which aren't illegal — 'it needs to include hate sites.' It needs to include any number of sites that somebody all of a sudden has a burr in their britches about.

"And generally the industry has said we can't possibly block all of these sites."

ISPs did agree to working with the non-profit Canadian Centre for Child Protection in implementing Project Cleanfeed in 2007, which blocks websites hosting child pornography.

That partnership was easier to undertake because the content being blocked was illegal, said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law.

"In these kinds of initiatives you have to separate child pornography from other forms of pornography and that's because to view child pornography itself is illegal. It's different once you get into other forms of pornography that many may find offensive but under a system of robust freedom of speech and freedom of expression remain perfectly legal," Geist said.

ISPs have resisted blocking porn websites by pointing out there are numerous free software applications that parents can install on their own computers to restrict access as they see fit.

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"Ultimately we don't need to reinvent the wheel," Copeland said.

"But we can certainly be part of any awareness campaign that the government might want to partner on."

Geist agreed that parents should be better empowered to protect their kids rather than forcing ISPs to implement overreaching filters.

"There's no question that parents and all Internet users need to be sufficiently sophisticated and educated about the benefits and some of the potential harms online and need to ensure they have the tools to address their concerns," he said.

"There are different tools to create some limitations on what (kids are) able to access but I have to say that's a far cry from what feels like a government mandated opt-in style approach to free expression. To have the government essentially force this on the ISPs in a way that you have to ... (opt-in) to be able to view perfectly legal content always raises questions around slippery slopes.

"Before you know it there are a range of groups talking about the need to opt-into other forms of content as well."

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Copeland said ISPs have also argued that implementing effective web filtering technology would be an onerous burden fraught with potential legal liabilities.

"Websites pop up, they disappear, they move and it's virtually impossible to prevent access to them with any degree of certainty. And what we've seen in the past — certainly with spam and other filters — is there's always a chance of false positives, it's difficult to get any of those filters narrowed down," Copeland said.

"You're always going to be running the risk of liability when you aren't able to filter everything, or you trap things that don't fit within that particular category. So there are a whole number of parameters the industry has to consider."

Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said she welcomed the discussion around new methods to safeguard kids online. She said she found some merit in Cameron's proposals, as long as they're ultimately implemented correctly.

"I think there always has to be the delineation between ... the focus being on protecting children and not on restricting adults from their choices," Arnason said.

"You could still have the ability to go in and turn that (filter) off, so I think it's an interesting idea to have the default to on for the pornography side, because we do know as prime minister Cameron stated that pornography — access to it and viewing it — can impact children significantly around their views with sex and relationships."

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