Do we want ISPs to be censors?

This morning’s Observer column.

In a way, identifying and barring the truly horrible content is the easy part, at least in legal terms. If downloading or viewing certain kinds of online content is deemed illegal, then internet companies know where they stand, and they will obey the law. If a site contains illicit content, then Google et al will find ways of not pointing to it.

The problem is that this alone will not stop people who are willing to take the legal risk implicit in accessing illegitimate sites. The next logical step, therefore, is to make access impossible by forcing internet service providers to block them, using the same technology that the Chinese government employs to make sure that nobody in China learns anything about, say, Falun Gong.

Not surprisingly, nobody in the industry likes this idea. Apart from the extra costs it would impose, it also places companies in the uncomfortable position of deciding what their customers can read and view. And it would effectively put the UK in the same boat as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and other countries whose governments decide what citizens can access.

Nevertheless, the ISPs are feeling the heat from a government desperate to be seen to be “doing something” about porn…