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'Porn lock' heralds death of WikiLeaks, internet, democracy, universe

Calm down, dears

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Analysis The British government wants to gag WikiLeaks, and is drawing up Orwellian plans to exploit fears over the effect of online smut on children to achieve that aim.

That was the snap conclusion drawn yesterday in fruitcake-friendly corners of the web in response to a Sunday Times front page splash, which reported that the communications minister, Ed Vaizey, is concerned about the availability of pornography and says he would quite like ISPs to do something about it for him.

He plans to call the major players to a meeting next month to discuss measures, including the potential for filters that would require those who do want XXX material to opt their connection out.

Of course, if those who responded to this news with conspiracy theories and proclamations of the death of democracy been paying proper attention to The Register, they would have known about these forthcoming discussions for almost a month. That's only slightly beside the point, which is that now the story is mainstream we're faced with reactionary posturing.

Vaizey declared his position on the issue in Parliament in late November. "We are talking about preventing children from having access to inappropriate content, and how we can work with ISPs to make it that little bit more difficult for them to do so," he said.

He gave yesterday's Sunday Times a couple more quotes along similar lines.

"This is a very serious matter," he said. "I think it is very important that it’s the ISPs that come up with solutions to protect children.

"I'm hoping they will get their acts together so we don’t have to legislate, but we are keeping an eye on the situation and we will have a new communications bill in the next couple of years."

The most important and substantial thing Vaizey has said repeatedly on the question of internet pornography is that he really doesn't want to legislate.

All the minister has otherwise done is give a commitment to act as a broker between industry and anti-pornography campaigners, and do some very gentle lobbying for ISPs to play ball.

Little wonder, given the flak taken by the Australian government over its "Great Firewall", a statutory filter for all types of "inappropriate content" online. ISPs here would put up fierce resistance to legislation, and thanks to the coalition's promises to upgrade Britain's broadband infrastructure, they are well-armed for such a battle.

The lightness of Vaizey's touch was best expressed by this morning's Today programme, when rather than getting a government spokesperson to appear to endorse restrictions, producers had to set up a debate between a latter-day Mary Whitehouse and, er, the editor of a gadget blog.

For further understanding what is really going on, basic study of Tory internal politics is required. On the face of it, Vaizey's action has been prompted by Claire Perry, a hitherto obscure, new intake backbencher, who called the Commons debate on the issue in November. What little we know of her comes from the well-connected Daily Mail sketch writer Quentin Letts, who describes her as an "incorrigible crawler" and sycophant to the Tory leadership.

With that in mind, it's likely she is endorsed by the high command to act as a stooge-agitator, thinking of the children on behalf of the right wing of the party.

This way, Vaizey can make soothing noises to ISPs, and the leadership appears to be taking the concerns of the mothers of Middle England seriously. They remain a far more powerful constituency than internet libertarians, despite Julian Assange and his celebrity friends.

Vaizey is, however, not stupid, whereas Claire Perry's plan for an opt-out filter is very stupid, as the Australians have amply demonstrated. Without getting into philosphical arguments about censorship and mission creep, or about parenting and responsibility, on a political level it would be likely to disturb many Lib Dems and rock the coalition. A government would collapse over a bit of smut.

Which is not to say no stupid policies will emerge from Vaizey's discussions, and vigilance remains vital. But until then, we'll filter out the wails from the oppressed blogosphere. ®

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