Opt out of opting in or out

by Robert Henderson
Opt out of opting in or out

Robert Henderson

The government has refused to make an automatic filter for pornography a legal requirement for ISPs with those wishing to access it having to opt out of the filters. They have not done this out of any concern for freedom of expression but because the government has

“…now decided that this type of “opt-in” system “can create a false sense of security” because it does not screen out all harmful content.

There were also fears it could have “over-blocked” useful websites giving children access to “helpful information on sexual health or sexual identity”. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9746421/David-Cameron-rejects-automatic-block-on-porn-to-protect-children.html).

But, as with so many political issues these days, having said no to legislation the government attempts to achieve the same ends with a mixture of non-statutory demands backed by threats of legislation if the ISPs do not do what the government wants , viz:

“However, the Government’s consultation response yesterday said it would instead rely on the voluntary co-operation of internet companies to strengthen controls on pornography.

It will now urge the companies to “actively encourage parents, whether they are new or existing customers, to switch on parental controls”. All users should be asked whether they have got children and parents would be guided through a process of installing anti-pornography filters.

Ministers will also ask the big internet service providers to make sure the person setting up controls is over 18.

Companies could face legislation in future if the Government feels they are not making enough of an effort to shield children from adult material. (Ibid)

If implanted, those non-statutory requests to ISPs could result in a database containing the opt in details of users which would have much the same effect and dangers as one arising from a statutory requirement on ISPs. There is also a good chance that whatever the ISPs do it will become a legal requirement in the foreseeable future because the children’s lobby is a powerful one.

What are the dangers of having computer users opt in for pornography? The same general reasons why opting in or out of anything desired by the government is danmgerous. Once someone has to opt in or out of something they become part of an identifiable group against whom both state and private agencies may act . Take one of the most frequently advocated opting in or out issues, that of organ donation. It might seem harmless at first glance, but you can bet your life that the information will eventually be used to disadvantage those who opted out, for example, by refusing them medical treatment which was available to those who opted in (this could include non-transplant treatment) or through the releasing of the information to insurers who might decide to charge more to someone on the register because those not on it were deemed to have a stronger sense of self-preservation.

In the case of pornography the dangers are two. First, there is no objective test for what is or is not pornography. Anything might be classified as such on a state whim. Think back to when cameras had film to be developed and recall all the cases of parents being accused of child abuse because they had taken photos of their young children in the bath, on the beach and so on. Second, those who opted in would be identifiable. That could easily lead to such information becoming part of a CRB check which could disqualify the person involved from a large and growing number of jobs or render a person liable to police investigation if it is deemed that looking at pornography is indicative of a propensity towards committing sexual crimes. Parents who opted in could find themselves scrutinised by the social services. Those wishing to adopt or foster would almost certainly be deemed unsuitable if they opted in. The information could also be used to blackmail people or ruin their careers.

All of those things and more could happen even if a computer user never looked at pornography and had simply opted in because the filters were excluding sites which no rational person could consider pornographic. Anyone with experience of computers where filters are in operation will know how random they can be in what they both exclude and allow through. It is also worth remembering that the evidence that an opt in had been activated would probably be permanently held by ISPs or on some other database. Someone might have opted in when they were twenty but not opted in since they were 25 and still find it counting against them when they were 50.

Beyond pornography, the it could also be the thin end of the wedge for other subjects on the Web to be made subject to opting in or out. The most likely candidate today would be any website deemed to be carrying “hate crime” material (anything non-pc would qualify) or even simply deemed right-wing by the oh so politically correct British establishment might require opting in. But anything political could qualify. Let the web be filtered for one thing of which the state disapproves and nothing is beyond such surveillance.

Permitting state ordered filtering of material on the web would be another stage in the ever tightening constriction exercised by the British state through the increasingly frequent criminal prosecution of those deemed to be resisting the totalitarian ideology that is political correctness (think of the cases which are almost daily reported in the mainstream media of someone arrested for alleged racial or homophobic “hate speech/writing”. Such control of the Web needs to be resisted now before it becomes the norm.


  1. An intelligent analysis. But the internet presents us with a difficulty which, I think it is fair to say, we have never had to face before in the entire history of the human race. It is the job of parents to protect their children from all the hazards the world will throw at them, some of which their young innocent minds simply cannot comprehend, until the children are old enough to make their own decisions in life. This is called parental guidance. Parents teach their offspring all sorts of things from how to wipe their bottoms to how to drive a car. But when it comes to the internet, or electronic gadgets in general for that matter, it is the other way round. Instead of parents teaching their children, children are teaching their parents.This is a quite new phenomenon. I cannot think of a similar instance in human or animal evolution. The very notion that adults can somehow prevent their children from accessing obscene internet content by ‘blocking’ it is laughable.

  2. “But the internet presents us with a difficulty which, I think it is fair to say, we have never had to face before in the entire history of the human race.”

    Like getting married at 8? Having a bunch of kids before 16 because after that it was even more life threatening? Sleeping in the same room/cave as your parents and watching them have sex? Seeing routine violence dealt out to those in the tribe who transgressed the rules? Being taken to see an execution? Having teachers use violence against children? Being forced to work in intolerable conditions?

    Hugo, what magic threats does the internet present us with today that are fundamentally different from those children in “the whole history of the human race” have had to face?

  3. My point was that traditionally parents have taught their offspring, but with the internet (and mobile phones, and video recorders even) it is the children who teach their parents how to use them! I have a freiend who has to get her six year old son to change the settings on her mobile phone. So the notion that adults can ‘protect’ their children by controlling their internet access is naive to the point of absurdity.
    It is this reversal of traditional roles I was referring to.

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