Web censorship is a risk to business

The IET has highlighted a serious business risk posed by web censorship:

“…one expert insisted that private companies should not hold power over blacklists, and that the responsibility should lie with an independent group.

“It needs to be run by an organisation accountable to a minister so it can be challenged in Parliament,” Dr Martyn Thomas, chair of the IT policy panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, told the BBC.

“There’s certainly a concern about the process of how a web address gets added to a blacklist – who knows about it, and who has an opportunity to appeal against it,” he added.

“You could easily imagine a commercial organisation finding itself on that blacklist wrongly, and where they actually lost a lot of web traffic completely silently and suffered commercial damage. The issue is who gets to choose who’s on that blocking list, and what accountability do they have?”

This is an excellent intervention. Censorship systems are notoriously inaccurate and often block content that shouldn’t be blocked. The Government wants these filters to be on by default but they are asking ISPs to do this voluntarily rather than legislating. No legislation means no opportunity to require privacy safeguards. It also means no help or relief for businesses, charities, organisations and individuals whose sites are blocked in error.

Alcohol is one of the topics ISPs will be censoring by default so if you run an online wine-merchant, for example, you could find your website blocked. There’s no obligation on ISPs to notify sites they’ve been censored – but suppose you notice a sharp drop in visitor numbers and manage to figure out the cause – how do you get the block lifted? There’s no central clearing-house for reports of overblocking and each ISP might have implemented (or outsourced to) a different system. You have to go cap in hand to each in turn and ask for the block to be overturned. Who pays the bill for the time and effort spent recovering the situation, and the loss of revenue caused by the block? Why, that’ll be you, as there exists no mechanism to compensate the victims of overblocking.

If you don’t find my wine merchant example sympathetic, replace it with a sexual health clinic, an eating disorder support charity or a church website.

Default-on censorship is a risk to businesses, charities and individuals alike, and the Government has been silent to date on how it intends to mitigate it. Well done to the IET for calling them out on this important issue.