UK Porn Filter Spurs Debate in Canada

Concerns need to be measured against harm to children, says MP
July 31, 2013 10:20 pm Last Updated: August 1, 2013 12:34 pm

OTTAWA—An Internet pornography filter in the U.K. praised by Prime Minister David Cameron has sparked debate in Canada about the line between censorship and protecting children from the psychological and social impacts of explicit content.

It’s a debate Conservative MP Joy Smith is anxious to have happen due to the proliferation of pornography and long-term impacts on children. Smith publicly endorsed Cameron’s plan for ISP filters on pornography and has faced both praise and criticism for her position. 

But beyond obvious questions about the harm wrought by pornography and the government’s role in regulating the Internet, there are questions about the role China could play in any such initiative. 

That’s because the filter that Cameron recently lauded in the U.K. is a product of Huawei, a Chinese company with links to the Chinese military that has sparked espionage concerns in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

TalkTalk, one of the U.K.’s major Internet service providers (ISP), uses a pornography filter system controlled by Huawei, though the provider’s U.K. staff can decide what sites it filters, according to the BBC. 

All TalkTalk customers have their Internet activity run through the filter, although those who have deactivated any restrictions won’t have browsing activity affected by it.

Smith said how a filter may be operated in Canada and by whom are details for a conversation she hopes to spark, much as she did with the issue of human trafficking when she was elected to the House of Commons in 2004. She wasn’t prepared to comment specifically on any role Huawei could play in a Canadian filter.

Smith did say she was surprised by how polarized reaction has been to the prospect of asking ISPs to have a default filter on pornography that users could opt out of.

“There were people who were 110 percent behind what I proclaimed and others saying they have a right to see pornography, govern their own children, and don’t want to be censored.”

Smith rejects the censorship argument out of hand, saying anyone can opt out of such a filter. And while critics have suggested parents can install software-based filters on home computers, Smith said these are limited and children have access to multiple computers, making it hard to ensure blanket coverage.

To date, the prospect of filtering pornography or other content has been a subdued discussion at best. Despite the controversy Smith’s comments have raised, she’s glad people are now discussing the issue.

She points to studies now emerging that find exposure to pornography can have long-term impacts on children, and that viewing pornography can be a precursor to sexual harassment. Among the studies she points to is one completed in 2009 which found that boys who frequently view pornography are more likely to be supportive of sexual coercion.

The status quo is not an option, she said, calling it self-delusion to believe that sexual content, which can be violent, is not having an impact on children.

“We need to start a conversation about this. … The fact of the matter is, it does harm children.”

The impact on children and society needs to be weighed against demands for unfiltered access to pornography, said Smith.

Opposition and Support

Smith said she has had “huge pushback” from the pornography industry because of the dollars involved.

Smith’s detractors are many. Online news magazine Vice raised the prospect that the opt-in system could create a list of people who wanted to look at pornography, something Smith denies. 

More common criticism comes down to the difficulty of successfully blocking porn sites. Some, including Tom Copeland, chairman of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, say that is all but impossible, and benign content will inevitably be filtered as well. 

In one news report, renowned Internet legal expert Michael Geist raised the prospect that once a pornography filter is established, the government could expect to be lobbied by special interest groups looking to have other content filtered by default. 

But Smith has also seen support, particularly from NGOs involved in protecting children such as the Red Hood Project, which advocates for better controls and privacy for under-age social media users.

Huawei’s role in the debate is an odd turn of events in the history of online content filtering. At one time, the Chinese regime relied on foreign companies to help it censor its own content, a questionable business documented by author Ethan Gutmann in his book “Losing the New China.” 

Even Canada’s former telecom giant Nortel got in on the business of helping the regime create a Big Brother Internet capable of simultaneously monitoring what Chinese surfers were viewing while filtering content it objected to, such as reports of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

It’s unclear whether Cameron was aware he was praising Huawei’s filter, given that the BBC only broke the story after the fact that Talktalk was using the Chinese company’s technology.

Cameron wants ISPs in Britain to have a default filter on pornographic content that account holders can opt out of with a click. ISPs could select their own filter, and would not be forced to use Huawei’s service.

Cameron’s recent announcement will see 90 percent of the U.K.’s broadband connections include an opt-out porn filter by 2014, with major ISPs including Virgin, Sky, and BT agreeing to the plan.