Think of the children
Give me smut and nothing but! - Tom Lehrer
Sex always sells, which is presumably why this week's British headlines have been dominated by the news that the UK's ISPs are to operate an opt-in system for porn. The imaginary sales conversations alone are worth any amount of flawed reporting:
ISP Customer service: Would you like porn with that?
Customer: Supersize me!
Sadly, the reporting was indeed flawed. Cameron, it turns out was merely saying that new customers signing up with the four major consumer ISPs would be asked if they want parental filtering. So much less embarrassing. So much less fun.
Even so, it gave reporters such as Violet Blue, at ZDNet UK, a chance to complain about the lack of transparency and accountability of filtering systems.
Still, the fact that so many people could imagine that it's technically possible to turn "Internet porn" on and off as if operated a switch is alarming. If it were that easy, someone would have a nice business by now selling strap-on subscriptions the way cable operators do for "adult" TV channels. Instead, filtering is just one of several options for which ISPs, Web sites, and mobile phone operators do not charge.
One of the great myths of our time is that it's easy to stumble accidentally upon porn on the Internet. That, again, is television, where idly changing channels on a set-top box can indeed land you on the kind of smut that pleased Tom Lehrer. On the Internet, even with safe search turned off, it's relatively difficult to find porn accidentally - though very easy to find on purpose. (Especially since the advent of the .xxx top-level domain.)
It is, however, very easy for filtering systems to remove non-porn sites from view, which is why I generally turn off filters like "Safe search" or anything else that will interfere with my unfettered access to the Internet. I need to know that legitimate sources of information aren't being hidden by overactive filters. Plus, if it's easy to stumble over pornography accidentally I think that as a journalist writing about the Net and in general opposing censorship I think I should know that. I am better than average at constraining my searches so that they will retrieve only the information I really want, which is a definite bias in this minuscule sample of one. But I can safely say that the only time I encounter unwanted anything-like-porn is in display ads on some sites that assume their primary audience is young men.
Eli Pariser, whose The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You I reviewed recently for ZDNet UK, does not talk in his book about filtering systems intended to block "inappropriate" material. But surely porn filtering is a broad-brush subcase of exactly what he's talking about: automated systems that personalize the Net based on your known preferences by displaying content they already "think" you like at the expense of content they think you don't want. If the technology companies were as good at this as the filtering people would like us to think, this weekend's Singularity Summit would be celebrating the success of artificial intelligence instead of still looking 20 to 40 years out.
If I had kids now, would I want "parental controls"? No, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I don't really believe the controls keep them safe. What keeps them safe is knowing they can ask their parents about material and people's behavior that upsets them so they can learn how to deal with it. The real world they will inhabit someday will not obligingly hide everything that might disturb their equanimity.
But more important, our children's survival in the future will depend on being able to find the choices and information that are hidden from view. Just as the children of 25 years ago should have been taught touch typing, today's children should be learning the intricacies of using search to find the unknown. If today's filters have any usefulness at all, it's as a way of testing kids' ability to think ingeniously about how to bypass them.
Because: although it's very hard to filter out only *exactly* the material that matches your individual definition of "inappropriate", it's very easy to block indiscriminately according to an agenda that cares only about what doesn't appear. Pariser worries about the control that can be exercised over us as consumers, citizens, voters, and taxpayers if the Internet is the main source of news and personalization removes the less popular but more important stories of the day from view. I worry that as people read and access only the material they already agree with our societies will grow more and more polarized with little agreement even on basic facts. Northern Ireland, where for a long time children went to Catholic or Protestant-owned schools and were taught that the other group was inevitably going to Hell, is a good example of the consequences of this kind of intellectual segregation. Or, sadly, today's American political debates, where the right and left have so little common basis for reasoning that the nation seems too polarized to solve any of its very real problems.