Will Britannia Rule the Web? Yes, If Claire Perry Has Her Way

LOS ANGELES—Claire Perry, Tory MP and the prime minister’s special adviser on preventing the sexualizing and commercialization of childhood, apparently thinks she can be the internet’s mum, doing for “complacent” parents everywhere what they will not do for themselves. In America, we call these people busybodies, and often, though not always, vote them out of office so that they can go tell their family, friends and neighbors how to live their lives, but no one else.

Perry’s plan is to do in the United Kingdom (and beyond) what they were unable to do in Australia after years of promised action, which is to legislate the opt-out filtering of pornography at the ISP level. That simply means that the default for all users will be to censor the content deemed problematic, and if someone wants to receive it they can unlock the content, which of course may also be noted by the prying eyes of the government.

"We will have filters where if you do nothing, the parental filters will come pre-ticked," Perry told a Westminster eForum June 14, adding that U.K. consumers can expect the new default setting to be in place by the end of 2013. But it gets better; the filters will not stay off when placed off. According to Wired UK, which broke Perry’s statements, “Features such as time-limited deactivation of filtering and email updates when filter settings are changed are expected to become widespread.”

The MP clarified, "We will have automatic put on, so if you turn the filter off at 9 p.m., it turns on again at 7 a.m.” How thoughtful of the government to remember for its people.

Not surprisingly, Perry’s comments, made late Friday, were met with resistance today.

"ISPs have already taken several steps on making the internet safer, with many offering or working towards an 'active choice +' system, which presents parents with an unavoidable choice,” said Nicholas Lansman, secretary general of ISPA, a trade association that represents UK internet suppliers. "We remain opposed to default filtering, as it is only one part of the solution, and can be circumvented and lead to over- or under-blocking."

That is exactly the point, however. Claire Perry and other supporters of government intervention have already concluded that the people cannot decide for themselves, and that parents in particular are, as Perry put it, too “complacent” about filters, and have forced the government’s hand. She cited a 40 percent use rate of filters by parents as proof of their complacency.

She also attempted to provide cover for the ISPs by saying they “had a duty to do this because they had got themselves into a situation of peddling pornography to children in a way they had never intended.” Unintended consequences wrought by the internet itself were also forcing the government’s hand.

"There's something different about the online world,” she is quoted as saying. “It is anonymous, it is easy and it is efficient to share imagery.”

The real danger here, beyond the insulting attempt to tell parents how to live, is that governments can rarely control content by top-down methods—even in totalitarian states (please reread 1984 now)—and the inevitable failure to impose supposedly moderate means, which is what Perry thinks she is imposing, too easily gives way to more restrictive measures that chip away at cherished freedoms.

Think it can’t happen? In fact, the call to block otherwise legal content has already been extended to include "pornographic images that promote sexual violence against women and girls," according to the Daily Telegraph, which just published a letter from a coalition of women’s groups warning that "the possession of images depicting rape, such as those entitled 'schoolgirl rape' or 'teen slut rape,' are legal so long as the actors are over the age of 18." To be clear, the cherished freedom here is not the act of making or posting simulated depictions of, for instance, a rape, but the freedom to do so.

Whatever benefits society derives from such freedoms, for the womens groups they obviously pale in comparison to the following imperatives. "We specifically want the Government to close a loophole in the pornography legislation which allows the lawful possession in England and Wales of pornographic images that depict rape, so long as the actors are over 18. ... A change in the English law would send a clear message that it is illegal to possess pornographic images that promote sexual violence against women.”

They also make the point that "depictions of necrophilia and bestiality are criminalized by the same legislation, meaning that animals and dead people are better protected than women and girls," a point that for some only further supports a slippery slope argument.

Not that the English have a particularly strong free speech tradition to fall back on. Indeed, now that Perry and the Cameron government have all but committed themselves to doing something significant in terms of making pornography harder to access by the general public and now people in their homes, expect pressure on the ISPs to intensify, and threats of government oversight to increase, equal to their resistance. Expect nothing less than the fall of Western civilization to be at hand otherwise, and don’t try telling them to mind their own business. They tried that but you parents can’t be trusted to do what’s best for your own kids.