INTERNET

How to Tell the U.K.’s Overbearing Porn Censors to Stuff It

INTERNET
Dec 24, 2013 at 1:39 PM ET

Dear Britain:

Merry Christmas. I got you these overreaching Internet filters that are supposed to protect your children’s innocent eyes from porn.

Best wishes,

Prime Minister David Cameron

P.S. They block a bunch of non-porn stuff, too, but we swear we’re not a nanny state.

***

That’s how we imagine the holiday e-card might read, anyway. Internet service providers (ISPs) in the U.K. on Monday switched on filters—some are automatic, others allow customers to opt in—that block “objectionable content” for families with kids at home. The problem is that the so-called “Great Firewall of Cameron” has a wide-ranging definition for objectionable content.

Internet freedom advocates from the Open Rights Group spoke to the ISPs in Britain, who are responsible for the content filters. They found out that the list of possible filters extends to everything from “extremist-related content” to the worryingly vague “web forums.”

A little over 36 hours in, there are conflicting reports on what is actually being blocked by these filters. Boing Boing initially reported that their own site, along with Slashdot and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, had fallen victim to provider O2’s filter. But it turns out that’s not the case (for a detailed technical explanation of why the O2 mobile, not content, filter is blocking these sites, go here). Still, there are enough reports of suppressing non-pornographic sites with alleged objectionable material—like LGBT news, sex ed and anorexia forums—to cause U.K. web surfers alarm.

Enter a man from a faraway land: Steven Goh, a recent Computer Science grad and developer at Unifide, a web design company in Singapore. Goh built the “Go Away Cameron” extension for the Google Chrome browser, which uses a proxy to allow users to circumvent the U.K.’s “porn filters.” He built a similar one for his own country after the Media Authority of Singapore (MDA) banned porn as well.

So why did he spent time designing a loophole for Internet users in the U.K.?

“I don’t really think the country matters here,” he says. “The Internet is really quite without boundaries, at least that was the Internet I grew up with and shaped who I am—a programmer. I don’t really want it to change. That’s why.”

Goh points out that the MDA started with porn, then moved on to the regulation of political news, and recently banned an extramarital dating site that was not pornographic. “Now they are talking about online gambling and ThePirateBay. What’s next? It’s just a slippery slope,” he says.

You might expect this kind of censorship from a country like Singapore, with a long history of keeping a tight leash on its citizenry. You might also expect it in Russia, where their version of the FCC has taken a similar heavy hand to the series of tubes that make up the Internet. But you wouldn’t necessarily expect it in Great Britain.

“Here in Singapore, we were never taught ‘free speech,'” Goh says. “A free Internet is really quite important…. It’s the one tool that governments are afraid of. Why? Because it keeps them in check. And with a little bit of coding, I could help bring some balance.”

That’s what he’s done—and according to him and some reports on social media, the Go Away Cameron website is already blocked by O2 in the U.K. (also on the objectionable list: “web-blocking circumvention tools”). Goh details how proxy access works on his site.

We asked readers in the U.K. to check if Vocativ is blocked. So far, it’s not. Happy reading!