British government and Google both use ‘filtering’ as a pretext for censorship
On Friday Laurie Penny wrote a piece in the Guardian’s Comment is Free: David Cameron’s internet porn filter is the start of censorship creep. The gist is that under the guise of protecting children, Cameron’s government is intent on controlling adults.
For example, she wrote:
The category of “obscene content”, for instance, which is blocked even on the lowest setting of BT’s opt-in filtering system, covers “sites with information about illegal manipulation of electronic devices [and] distribution of software” – in other words, filesharing and music downloads, debate over which has been going on in parliament for years. It looks as if that debate has just been bypassed entirely, by way of scare stories about five-year-olds and fisting videos. Whatever your opinion on downloading music and cartoons for free, doing so is neither obscene nor pornographic.
But we should not be surprised. Filtering has always been used as a disguise for censorship – and not just by governments. For example, I recently emailed Alexander Hanff, a well-known privacy expert and advocate, for his views on the GDPR (specifically for an article I was writing at the time). He replied, but with this surprising comment:
‘Nothing to do with me, guv,’ I quickly replied. Well, he looked into it, and to cut a long story short (you can read the full version on his blog: Gmail scanning becomes censorship), he came to the conclusion that Google is effectively using ‘privacy’ as a trip for its spam block.
Alexander gives several reasons why this email could not be considered spam by any half-decent filter: it was clearly a reply; it included his PGP key; and it included both a delivery and a read receipt. His conclusion:
What makes this even more ironic, is the email content was all about an EU Regulation of which Google would be one of the corporations it impacts most – an email about privacy, scanned by a filter which goes against privacy and run by a company that has declared war on privacy because this single, fundamental right interferes with their illegitimate and unethical revenue model.
Alexander’s conclusion is that this was incompetence, ironic incompetence, bordering on censorship. But it’s a fine line – and personally, I’m not so sure. Google’s filters are essential to its business model. It cannot afford to get them wrong. And its revenue record demonstrates that it doesn’t get it far wrong. A little tweak here, and a little tweak there, and Cameron’s ability to censor anything he wants becomes a simple reality.
And as far as I can see, Google is already testing out its model. In this instance it was an inoffensive email to a journalist about the GDPR. But filtering and blocking emails to journalists is a worrying trend with worrying potential.