Internet regulation: Wires crossed
This article was originally published in The Economist on July 7th 2012
Fans of smutty websites may resist giving personal information to porn barons. But they should feel safe entrusting it to their government. On June 29th the Department for Education temporarily suspended a public consultation on proposals to make internet pornography harder to access. It had found that its website was leaking respondents’ confidential answers and e-mail addresses on the net.
The cock-up is an unfortunate start to a fraught discussion on what role government should play in protecting children from the web’s wilder provinces—not just pornography but also sites that promote gambling, anorexia or self-harming. In March a committee led by Claire Perry, a Conservative MP, recommended that all British internet users be blocked by default from accessing adult sites—unless the bill payer requests otherwise. It is more likely that service providers will end up giving customers a choice whether to opt in or out of content blocking when their internet connection is first installed.
The campaign against porn, which is supported by the Daily Mail, Britain’s fiercest newspaper, is one of several new proposals to regulate the web. Last month the government promised to make it easier for citizens to pursue web users who libel them anonymously. It will offer legal immunity to publishers that cough up identifying information about people accused of spreading lies on their sites. Publishers have advocated this, but free-speech campaigners worry that poorly drafted rules could make platforms too eager to hand over user data. Ian Brown, at the Oxford Cyber Security Centre, warns the move could encourage sites to collect more personal information from their users.
More controversial still are proposals contained in the draft Communications Data bill published on June 14th, which grants intelligence agencies the right to intercept and store information about almost any correspondence. This would let authorities piece together an individual’s internet search history, see which sites they visit or track activity on webmail and social networks. Paul Bernal at the University of East Anglia law school says the draft bill is so broadly written it could even be used to monitor carrier pigeons. “It makes surveillance the default and privacy the exception,” he says.
The legislation is likely to lose some of its sharp edges as it goes through Parliament. But Britain nonetheless looks out of step with its neighbours. No other European government has seriously considered the mass blocking of legal adult content, says Joe McNamee of European Digital Rights, a coalition of civil-liberties groups. Nor can he think of any democratic country that submits to surveillance as sweeping as that proposed in Britain. On the contrary, Ireland has asked the European Court of Justice to investigate an existing European directive that requires its internet service providers to retain a little data on users.
Britain’s coalition government enthusiastically champions digital growth. It is doggedly dragging government services online, releases oodles of useful data to businesses and the public, and coddles web entrepreneurs in the London district it has named “Tech City”. Its occasional spells of illiberalism, brought on by security worries and campaigning newspapers, are often at odds with these efforts. Only last summer the prime minister hinted he would consider blocking access to social networks during riots (the comment was quickly withdrawn). One tech-industry figure calls government web policies “schizophrenic”. Mr Bernal labels them “a real mess”.