Will New UK Censorship Impact Torrent Sites?

Last week, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced a new porn filtering system that will go online sometime during the coming year. However, the blockades, which are intended to deal with porn, may end up developing into a backdoor ban on BitTorrent and other file-sharing related sites.

Online censorship is a controversial subject. It’s often used in an attempt to ‘protect’ a group of people from something, but it rarely works as intended, and once in place feature-creep often sets in.

Unfortunately, in the rush to censor content for the claimed good of some group or other, the unintended consequences of these systems usually take a back seat.

In 2008, the UK Internet Watch Foundation (a private company operating confidentially) added a Wikipedia page to their list with the result that all Wikipedia visitors from Cleanfeed-using ISPs used one of a handful of IP addresses, leading to user verification issues and bans.

Another example closer to home involves UK ISP TalkTalk. They offer their customers a filtering system already and TorrentFreak – strictly a news resource – is unavailable when customers turn on the option to block file-sharing sites.

Not all such consequences are unintended, however. The new anti-porn lists, which are opt-out, may end up instituting a block on torrent and other filesharing-related sites. The lists were announced along with a piece by Prime Minister David Cameron in the Daily Mail newspaper (which has plenty of sexually-charged content of its own), who had run a morality campaign on the topic for the last few months.

Torrent site blocking has been postulated occasionally and has been implemented in the UK via High Court orders, which have both over-reached and been easily circumvented. Site blocks in other countries have also been tried, mainly against the claimed “root of all evil”, The Pirate Bay, albeit with extremely limited success (seriously).

The lengthy and costly High Court approach may not be needed now though. Many torrent sites contain, to a greater or lesser extent, pornographic content, as well as more acceptable (but likely still to be blocked) ‘adult’ or ‘mature’ content. As such, we can only assume that torrent sites will be included initially or added later on.

This will be another blow against independent artists and creators who have leveraged the power of torrents to distribute content. And like all other attempts to legislate some personal interpretation of morality, it’s doomed to fail at its intended use, while creeping to the personal desires of those in charge, to the public detriment.

We’ll report more on how these lists impact torrent sites when more details become available.

UPDATE/Clarification 17:33 29/12/2012
While many commenters have pointed to this BBC piece about it being rejected, the piece was written about the rejection of an ‘opt-out’  system, and printed 4 days before Prime Minister Cameron’s Daily Mail announcement. In his plan, the system will be opt-in, and involve the ISPs in some form, but will have the default values (for people that just click through without reading) to turn on a basic level of filtering, if there are children in the house.

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