Who decides what we can see online?

commons dayToday, along with the Open Rights Group, English PEN and Index on Censorship, we have signed a letter to Culture Secretary Maria Miller highlighting our concerns about the current debate around ‘blocking’ internet content.

It is absolutely right to pursue the removal of illegal content from the internet, but moving to a system where legal content is blocked poses a clear and significant risk to freedom of speech. The triviality of circumventing blocks aside, such a policy risks blocking legitimate websites and setting a dangerous international precedent. After all, who gets to decide what legal content is deemed to be unfit for the British public?

If content is illegal, pursue it, remove it and prosecute those who are responsible. If content is legal, then having a political, non-judicial process to decide what should be blocked is not the right way forward.

The letter is reproduced below.

Dear Secretary of State,

We are writing to you regarding news that you have summoned internet companies to a meeting about how they deal with illegal or extreme content online.

As representatives of civil society groups focused on freedoms in the digital age, we are very concerned about changes to the law or industry practices that involve restrictions on access to information online. The powers to make decisions about what people are allowed to see and do on the Internet are significant and must be treated with extreme care. There are particular problems when governments expect or require companies to police online content.

An understandable desire to ensure a ‘safer’ environment online can easily lead to overreaching or unaccountable powers or practices. Through mistakes or abuse these can quickly lead to restrictions on far too much content and undue infringements of people’s privacy. For example, mobile networks’ Internet filtering in the UK routinely over blocks the websites of shops, political blogs or community sites. In Australia, it has emerged that 250,000 websites were accidentally blocked when a government agency tried to take down sites allegedly involved with fraud. The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue highlighted his grave concerns about these problems in his 2011 report.

Poorly implemented fixes will not only inhibit freedoms in the UK. They will also set a very damaging precedent internationally, providing more cover for States whose interests in restricting access to information online or the surveillance of citizens is more sinister. This was emphasised by the Foreign Secretary William Hague at the London Cyberspace Conference in 2011.

As representatives of leading UK civil society groups, we would therefore request that we are present at the forthcoming summit to ensure these concerns are addressed.


  1. Jerome James Green
    6th June 2013

    This is a threat to our freedoms. It needs to be stopped.

    • merv
      15th April 2014

      You think gchq aint already intercepting http reqtests and re-directing the requests to their servers. If our government insists that it has to put a referrnce number on uour ballot slip so it knows how you vote, in breach of eu law on free and secret elections, do you think thet care about breaching your privacy? Notice how Snowden’s revelations have been censored across the media in thebUK but freely available in Greece.

  2. Dave the Rave
    6th June 2013

    Hmm. Typical technically illiterate grand-standing politicians thinking
    that a switch thrown here, a disconnection there and maybe a magic wand
    waved over the system, will miraculously make the net completely safe.
    It ain’t gonna happen. I can see any attempt at this causing large
    amounts of collateral damage and who is to be sued if legit websites are
    taken off line? This has happened already elsewhere. When will these
    people use consultants who REALLY know what’s going on? As far as I can
    see, it’s just plain old censorship – no more, no less and is the
    beginning of a slippery slope, thin end of the wedge, or any other
    metaphor you care to use for a government that seems to be obsessed with
    controlling their citizens’ lives.

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    6th June 2013

    […] Who decides what we can see online? […]

  4. David
    7th June 2013

    It’s disturbing how recent events have been used to back an existing agenda of greater censorship and control over the internet. I think you’d be extremely naive to still believe that there isn’t such an agenda, and it has very little to do with ‘making us safer’ and other catchphrases. Terrorists and paedophiles, the more emotive the better…

    I think the truth of the matter is that the internet is largely outside the control of those who have a vested interest we see things in a particular way. This infuriates them and leads to any excuse being used.

    Where is the evidence that the Woolwich attack would have been prevented by censorship of ‘extreme material’ on the internet? Could it not have been the case that these individuals were simply mentally disturbed? Child pornography was allegedly found on Bridger’s PC. It’s illegal and every effort should be made to prevent it’s spread, but with USB sticks etc. the internet is a red herring, you don’t even need the net to share it.

    What worries me is that child porn (illegal) becomes porn (legal) and inciting murder etc. becomes ‘politically extremist’. There is very little intellectual honesty here. If they want to make porn in general illegal then pass a law. What do we mean by ‘politically extremist’? Without a narrow definition of advocating the death of people doesn’t it sound a lot like simply criticising the state and it’s agents? It isn’t a stretch to see this as creating a tyranny, but of course the people advocating censorship never see it that way and always have the best of intentions…

  5. David
    7th June 2013

    Correction to last paragraph: first line ‘inciting murder’ change to ‘criticising the state’.

    • Guest
      9th June 2013

      Criticising the state is now an offense? wtf when did I move into China ?!