When Tim Berners-Lee proposed an open network of hyperlinked documents nearly 25 years ago, even he could not quite have anticipated just how big, or how important the web would become. The premise was simple, but brilliant - an open system that anyone could contribute content to and which anyone could access, as long as they knew how or where to find this content. This essentially unregulated environment allowed it to scale at the rate which has seen the Internet become the almost infinite resource of information that it has become today.
This freedom for anyone to share information across the web has meant that it is perhaps the most democratic means of communication that we have witnessed to date. No one requires access to giant printing presses, radio transmitters, or well developed distribution networks to reach a potentially huge audience. All one needs is an internet connection, some space on a server and some basic skills to share data with the rest of the web.
The freedom of speech that this process allows cannot be underestimated, and has helped countless movements worldwide to find a voice that they had previously been denied through traditional media.
For all the positives offered by this free and open system, there is one critical problem with this kind of freedom, and that is the inability to control completely what type of content is distributed across the internet. For every 10 communities trying to make a positive impact on the world via the web, there is a manifesto filled of hate and bile. For everyone sharing pictures of their family holiday there is minority sharing the most disturbing and vile images that you can imagine.
And between these polar opposites, there are many, many shades of grey.
The ‘opt out' filter put in place by the four largest UK ISPs, at the behest of David Cameron's government, is an attempt to not only rightly block out the harmful content, but also block out much of this grey. Following a lengthy lobbying process, new account holders will be unable to access certain materials deemed of an adult nature, all in the interests of protecting children, or so we are told.
The reality is that the filters go much further than blocking pornography, but also content deemed to be obscene or to have been produced by extremists, although what defines a level of obscenity or extremism is not exactly clear. Sites with information on file-sharing and music downloads, or how to ‘jailbreak' devices are conveniently blocked as obscene, hardly something threatening the moral fabric of a nation.
Essentially, what this boils down to is censorship. It is the government acting as a moral authority as to what content is suitable for the public, and what isn't. Censorship is nothing new, but is more likely to be associated with totalitarian regimes than liberal democracies. The free world stood aghast as Nazi Germany burned books of anything that didn't fit in with its ideology. It is hard to see how this can be viewed as being much different.
There is a need to protect children from certain online content, but there is also a need to educate as to what is responsible use of the internet. Just as prohibition didn't stop people drinking alcohol in 1920s America, filters won't stop people from accessing the data that they want to nearly one-hundred years later. Kids have a funny habit of being able to work around restrictions put in front of them, and by forcing them to do this they could potentially be putting themselves at greater risk by using proxy servers or entering the murky world of TOR, the anonymised network.
Last year, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor famously referred to the internet as ‘virgin territory,' and this is another example of legislators not fully understanding the mechanics of the internet. We've had the internet in public use for around 20 years now, and it's my guess that it will be another 20 years before digital natives are in positions of power to draft effective legislation around it.
This prohibition of censorship won't work and continuation of this policy could see those it is supposed to protect put at even greater risk. What's more, just as prohibition in the US led to the growth of organied crime, this prohibition of censorship could be catalyst for the growth of an online underworld.
Prohibition was also bad for the law makers. It forced many good, law-abiding people into doing something that they wouldn't normally do - breaking the law. An indirect result of that was a lack of respect for not only the law, but those who made it. It has the power to erode the legitimacy of power. The fact that this new form of censorship is being directed by a government that has overseen widespread electronic mass surveillance of its people suggests they may soon alienate those that value their freedom.
How much intrusion can we allow into our lives from the authorities? It may be necessary for certain standards of regulation to be upheld, but decisions on basic morality surely belong with the individual. The web was built on free and open ideals. Can we afford to stand back before this freedom and openness has disappeared completely?
Rafael Laguna is CEO of Open-Xchange