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Dominique Lazanski: Britain can't afford to filter content online at home, whilst promoting an open internet policy abroad

Picture 9Dominique Lazanski is Head of Digital Policy at the TaxPayers' Alliance.

David Cameron is putting his full support behind the Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection (pdf) that proposes an opt-in mechanism for viewing pornography. Essentially there will be filtering of legal pornography unless a user requests otherwise.

It is no surprise that I support all of the arguments against this idea. The unintended consequences of website filter will “risk damaging legitimate businesses and undermining cyber security while further perpetuating the myth that this is an easy technological solution to a complex problem” according to Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch, and I completely agree. There is no end of legitimate technical reasons not to filter websites and such arguments are what ultimately brought down the SOPA bill in the USA earlier this year.

But aside from the technical issues and, of course, the fact that parents – and not the government – should decide how to raise their own children and educate them about being online, there is a more important international issue which is not being discussed.  The International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs for short) are being renegotiated at an international level. The proposals that are coming out of the UK right now on website filtering and blocking could undermine this entire process for the UK.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a treaty-based organisation that is a specialised agency of the United Nations. The ITU has 193 countries in its membership and some of these members have proposed imposing binding mandates, exercising control over, for instance, regulating mobile Internet roaming charges, regulating charges for internet backbone peering, removing the administration of domain names from ICANN and controlling the development of internet architecture. We would see the impact of these new controls immediately. No longer would developers work together in a voluntary capacity through the Internet Engineering Task Force and no longer would we see the emergence of new top level domains, including the possibility of .London, as discussed in the Forum earlier this month. The spontaneous and collaborative nature of the internet would slow to a crawl or be put offline altogether.

The UK is actively advocating the social and economic benefits to an innovative, free, and open Internet at an International level. The principles of the Cyberspace Conference hosted by the Foreign Office are being taken forward and International bilateral agreements are being codified. In both of these contexts the idea “that cyberspace remains open to innovation and the free flow of ideas, information and expression” is central to the discussions.

How, then, can the UK argue for these freedoms Internationally and not support them at home? It is clear that in the Coalition Government the understanding of complex technical policies and issues is lacking. Furthermore, communication across Whitehall is muddled at best and isn’t helped by the loss of Steve Hilton in Number 10, who actually understood the global ramifications of local digital policies. DCMS and the FCO are closest to these International negotiations and do get it, but something seems to go awry as the policies in other parts of the government don’t reflect the learnings in these departments.

The UK needs to present a strong and unified front in arguing for freedom online both abroad and at home. On Thursday, the White House came out against the ITR proposals in a no-nonsense and straightforward way. We simply must do the same here in the UK or our credibility and viability as a tech friendly country will be lost on the International stage. But the first step to this must come at home. We cannot afford to promote technically unviable filtering and snooping on UK soil while promoting a free, open and innovative Internet abroad.


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