Internet censorship poses real threat to accessibility

Kids in the United Kingdom better watch out increased Internet censorship is headed their way.

To stop minors from viewing adult material on the Internet, the UK is considering enacting default censorship on Web pages deemed inappropriate for minors.

According to the U.K. news source Daily Mail, research suggests that four out of five teens age 14 to 16 regularly access explicit photographs on their computers or phones, while about one-third of children under 10 have seen pornography on the Internet.

Prime minister David Cameron has led the charge in making the Internet a safer place for minors, calling for Internet service providers (ISPs) to automatically censor material, unless customers over 18 opt out of the filter system.

The intentions are good, but to filter content on the Internet, ISPs have to scan pages and create software that determine whether or not a Web page is appropriate for minors. How can a computer-generated system decide what material interests 10 year-olds versus 17 year-olds?

Adult content implies sexual content. But not all websites that mention sex are inappropriate for minors. Sexual health and sexual education sites, LGBTQA sites, news reports and others are at risk of being filtered with the proposed system.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is dedicated to protecting rights in the digital world, tested censorware used by U.S. schools to see whether the intended websites were, in fact, being blocked.

They found that about 75 percent to 85 percent of the websites were incorrectly classified, and that other important content was censored. Many Web pages that dealt with reproductive health, breast cancer and sexuality were not accessible.

Clearly these issues are too nuanced for filters to make accurate decisions on Web content. In fact, given the alternative of having blocked Web pages or unrestricted browsing, I would choose the latter.

The nature of the Internet is that if you want to find something, you usually can. Setting filters and censoring material will not prevent minors from viewing explicit images if they want to see them.

With all of the nude photo scandals that appear on the Web due to a lack of proper education, it is obvious that kids are not gaining the Internet intelligence needed to safely navigate sites.

Internet censorship is serious, but the U.K.s proposal is misguided. Instead of an attempt to ban material from minors, the government should first seek to increase the awareness of Internet risks and consequences.

We need to keep governments in check when it comes to censorship on the Internet. Ultimately it is up to us to decide our informational needs on the Internet, not only what the government deems appropriate.