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UK Culture Minister proposes banning porn at ISPs

UK Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has stepped into the ages-old debate about online pornography, saying in an interview with the Sunday Times that the UK government is floating a proposal that ISPs implement an age-verification scheme to block access to adult material “at source.” The idea would be to block access to adult materials to individuals unless they’re verified by ISPs as being old enough to access them. Vaizey framed the issue in terms of protecting children.

“I’m hoping [ISPs] will get their acts together so we don’t have to legislate, but we are keeping an eye on the situation and we will have a new communications bill in the next couple of years,” Vaizey said in the interview.

The proposal has been roundly criticized by free speech advocates, claiming that such an age verification system amounts to government censorship and would inevitable block access to various types of lawful material. An industry group of Internet service providers notes that its members already provide a range of tools to help parents and other manage children’s access to the Internet, and notes that any access mechanism imposed from the top-down by governments would, at best, serve only to block unintentional access to legal pornography: the technical realities of such a filtering system would means that anybody determined to get around the ban could do so with ease. Plus, given the myriad methods in which pornographic material can be distributed online—Web sites, instant messaging, peer-to-peer services, news groups, and more—mean it would be essentially impossible to block all access to adult materials in anything approaching real time.

Civil rights advocates also warn that a censorship system that starts off with pornography could easily be extended to other media: if British ISPs are required to restrict access to sites allegedly hosting pornographic material, such a system could be applied to films, television shows, and music.

Vaizey’s comments follow a call last month by another conservative member of parliament calling for ISPs to implement an “opt-in” system requiring age verification to access adult material.

[Ed Vaizey photo: Jon Jordan]

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