Alternative or esoteric internet sites in the UK could soon be subject to the same censorship that exists in China thanks to new laws announced by David Cameron.

Under the guise of protecting children from porn sites, internet service providers (ISPs) will be forced to create default filters when people sign up for internet services.

This is being touted as a move to stop pornographic and extremist material from getting through to end users, including vulnerable children.

Whilst at first glance, that may seem a noble aim, the effect of that law will be far more sinister.

This is because it has also emerged that a host of other categories will be on the block list, including “esoteric material”, web forums, and political websites that deviate from the status quo or mainstream media.

The filtering system that has been praised by David Cameron is controlled by the controversial Chinese company Huawei.

Huawei have direct links to the Chinese government and are also in control of the controversial censorship of websites in that country.

Now for the first time in history, we may soon see the widespread use of the same censorship being widely implemented in the UK.

The top-level filters will be most likely be linked to a list of keywords – made by the government, of course – and any websites that have any of these keywords will be blocked/banned.

These filters will include words like ‘esoteric’ ‘alternative belief/spirituality’ ‘spiritual healing’ and ‘reiki’ for example.

Even subjects such as ‘raw food’ may get caught out by the arbitrary filtering censor.

Many web forums which give key information on sexual health matters, abuse, addiction and so forth are also at risk.

The research was uncovered by the Open Rights Group which interviewed a number of ISPs about the filtering system.

What they discovered was worrying. The filtering system will automatically block the following web searches unless you actively phone your ISP to remove yourself from the filter:

☑ pornography

☑ violent material

☑ extremist and terrorist related content

☑ anorexia and eating disorder websites

☑ suicide related websites

☑ alcohol

☑ smoking

☑ web forums

☑ esoteric material

☑ web blocking circumvention tools

Dara, a researcher from Sydney in Australia says, “I think the thing that I find the most disturbing though, is looking down the road to the long-term implications. If this legislation passes in the UK, and then other parts of the world, then that means the power exists for any government, or many of them, to completely shut down a chunk of humanity’s access to spiritual material online. And if the power exists, then someday, someone is likely going to use it, to its full extent. That’s why it’s being put in place now, hidden amidst the other issues. The leap from people being completely banned from sharing, viewing, and publishing esoteric material online, to people being banned from sharing and practicing alternative spirituality in real life is not very big. It could happen so easily once the precedent is set.”

Now, it’s important to emphasise that these are not set in stone – yet; but they do raise the possibility that the default option will cause huge swathes of the internet to be invisible for many people, who won’t even know what they are not seeing (obviously).

And whilst it is completely desirable that violent or pornographic websites should be blocked, the problem is that millions of perfectly legal sites will also be affected, not to mention ecommerce ones.

The other central issue is how easy it would be to extend the categories at any time – to include “undesirable political” sites, for example. That’s really the key danger of censorship: once it’s in place, it can be extended very easily, while definitions of words like ‘extremist’ could easily be expanded. In the UK, for example we have already seen those who study the subject of common law and lawful rebellion being labelled as ‘terrorists’ in mainstream papers such as the Telegraph and in Canada.

And look at the definition of ‘esoteric’. In the dictionary, the word esoteric is defined in the following ways:

1.Understood by or meant for only the select few who have special knowledge or interest; recondite: poetry full of esoteric allusions.

2.Belonging to the select few.

3.Private; secret; confidential.

4.(of a philosophical doctrine or the like) intended to be revealed only to the initiates of a group: the esoteric doctrines of Pythagoras.

The problem with that is ‘esoteric material’ could later be extended to include academic materials, scientific papers, political forums, and any material related to the history/dangers of censorship.

Mobile phone operators will be particularly at risk. The most important thing to know about these mobile filters, though, is this: they are terrible at their job. Over the years, many websites have found themselves the victim of a phenomenon known as “overblocking”, where the filters seem to arbitrarily censor them from millions of subscribers.

According to the GigaCom, blogs will be particularly targeted. Bobbie Johnson, writer at the site, said that he has been in touch with Orange who confirmed that many blogs will also be blocked. An email from Orange, said that GigaOM among others, was blocked because it was classified as a blog:

“GigaOM was blocked by our third party monitoring system as it was categorised incorrectly as a blog, (and at the moment Safeguard blocks blogs, but it will not block them all when the new Child Safety Safeguard goes live later in the year with a new Light setting) and not a professional tech news site, due to the usage of the word ‘blog’ on the site. This has now been rectified. We would like to sincerely apologise again for any inconvenience caused.”

Therefore, some filtering systems will block websites by category and not content.

Although it is claimed that people will simply be able to “opt-in” to the material they want, such choices could potentially be used against you in a court of law.

According to ComputerWorldUK, this summarises the problem with opt-in: it requires you to make a non-secret declaration that you want to access a certain class of material, some of which may be deemed ‘socially unacceptable’.

The first time this fact is used in court – divorce and custody cases seem an area where it could be relevant – most people will naturally start to leave the filtering system in place, even if it has blocked legitimate sites, for the simple reason that it may reflect badly on them.

Glyn Moody, writer and expert at ComputerWorldUK, said: “In other words, the opt-in scheme threatens to move us beyond creeping censorship – bad enough in itself – to something far worse, because not so visible: creeping self-censorship. That is truly the Chinese model, where online users know that there are certain lines that cannot be crossed, and who therefore never write or discuss certain forbidden topics because they have interiorised the government’s restrictions. We need to fight this idiotic and dangerous opt-in scheme now, regardless of what we think about porn and its online availability.”


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