The last time I was in the (now closed) Ancoats walk in health centre I noticed something pretty sobering. A poster with information about help for victims of domestic abuse with tear off slips with contact details at the bottom.
Half of the strips were torn off.
Each torn strip represents a moment of someone seeking vital information to get help. It's that act of courage to seek information that has now become collateral in Cameron's web block firewall.
It's fair to say 2013 has been a pretty torrid year for the Internet. It brought us an onslaught of tabloid headlines about filth pouring in to our homes messing with the heads of our young people. This stung Cameron and the government in to pressuring internet service providers, like BT, and search engines, like Google, in to 'doing something', otherwise they would feel the full force of the 'Something Must Be Done Act 2014'. All the while, these confused politicians have shown their lack of understanding by confusing the roles of the very companies they have been leaning on, and the result has been chaos.
The move to have web blocking by default from the major ISPs was presented as a victory for the moral majority and no different to the TV watershed. Of course we, and many others, pointed out the dangers and inevitability of under- and overblocking. But we, and everyone else who actually know something about this issue, were dismissed with an argument along the lines of “We put a man on the moon. Technology is brilliant. Something must be done. Or are you no longer the Making-It-Done people?”
Equally, the suspicion was that all the objections boiled down to wanting to see porn. Seldom in the history of politics has a reasoned point of view been more literally dismissed with “you're a bunch of wankers”.
But our point all along was not about personal gratification or an abstract one about technology. It was that far from helping families, blocking would put them at risk. It was far from protecting young people, it would cut them off from vital information. It was far from stopping abuse, it would allow abusers to control the lives of their victims still further.
Sure enough, Newsnight's investigation in to filtering showed blocks on Edinburgh Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, Doncaster Domestic Abuse Helpline, Sexual Health Scotland amongst others. Social media has been full of further examples.
Of course we have been accused of going too far in pointing this out. One DCMS ( Department for Culture, Media and Sport) response to concerns about filtering implies that there can't be any talk of censorship as “customers who do not want filters can simply switch them off.” Which is to spectacularly miss the point. As Sex and Censorship bluntly put it “I'm a parent … Should parents set their filters on or off?” The reality is that customers are not being properly informed about what they are getting, or rather, not getting.
Oddly, a certain amount of the response from the tech community to the Cameron firewall has sounded like letters from DCMS. Words to the effect that it doesn't matter that much, all you need is a Chrome extension or whatever.
But I don't want to make an island of techno privilege. So many of our worst fears have already been proved. But “we told you so” is not enough. We must act – hold businesses and our politicians to account.
I can't help thinking about the people in Ancoats who took the slips of paper with info on how to escape an abusive situation. I'm not going to assume they are going to turn up to a Manchester Cryptoparty any time soon. Being blocked once could be the equivalent of tearing off all those contact slips in the health centre and chucking them in the bin. That's why this issue is important, and why there has to be a political solution.