Building the Great Firewall of Cameron

Deemed the “Great firewall of Cameron”, UK Prime Minister has since 2013 aggressively pursued web censorship in the UK. Without transparent and democratic processes enacted, the government has insisted that by default, internet service providers such as Sky, BT, and TalkTalk block links leading to pornography, content pirates, and sites related to terrorism. It is the job of an EU charity, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), to develop a list of offensive material which it then provides to ISPs for blocking. The IWF has received a fair amount of criticism which claims it’s web filtering practices are ineffective and secretive. Internet freedom advocates such as the Open Rights Foundation reject censorship and sees these efforts as disastrous for the future of free speech. To date, the ORF has documented that 1 in 5 sites are blocked, many erroneously such as the UK Parliamentary committee on torture, computer security conferences, rape crisis centres, and charities for survivors of sexual abuse.

Today, censorship is achieved through an informal enactment of “soft power,” as the Tory government, through the actions of an EU charity, put pressure on ISPs. But perhaps Cameron’s call for official censorship legislation will result in a public democratic debate on whether or not the people think free speech should be sacrificed for censorship.

“When I read my Daily Mail this morning, I sputtered over my cornflakes because we worked so hard to put in place these filters,” stated Cameron. The Prime Minister was flustered by the recent EU ruling on network neutrality, which in addition to allowing there to be a cheaper slow lane and an expensive fast lane—which will exacerbate information inequality—also forbid EU states from censoring content. In reaction to the EU law, Cameron will now look to drafting legislation to make ISPs censor a secret the IWF’s secret list of websites.

A project of the Open Rights Foundation, the humorous video below satirizes a man trying to access a cooking recipe website which happens to include the term “dirty.” Instead of a recipe site, he is routed to a condescending and paternalistic switchboard operator working for the Department of Dirty.

Do we really need, as Cameron claims, the government and internet companies colluding to limit our access to information? Over 17,000 signatures on a petition to stop censorship in the UK send a clear signal signal that a large population thinks not. It is widely known that governments from China to Cuba engage in web censorship but little is known about the policies and technologies of web censorship in the UK. With censorship policies decided for us without our democratic input and with faulty technology limiting access to necessary information, shouldn’t we revisit our nation’s stance on censorship?

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures