I was behind a web filter last week.
I shouldn't have been aware that I was behind a web filter, of course. If the stuff about filtering of adult content is to be taken remotely seriously, surely I should have been able to spend a couple of hours working industriously behind a such a thing without being aware that it was there? I was trying to make my way through a considerable 'to do' list, all of which was related to education, independent filmmaking or screenwriting.
Well, that's where the problem started.
My production company's website is jinx.co.uk, an extremely cool URL which we snapped up in the late 90s back when people thought this internet thing was for geeks only and would never really catch on. We missed the .com by about a day. Anyway, the URL is important to us and helps us stand out. I needed to run a very brief update on the site before I did anything else, and tapped the address in.
I was greeted by a block screen from a company called Fortiguard, which stated that the address was unavailable. There, underneath the statement, was the reasoning behind this decision. No messing about with vague terms like 'possibly objectionable content' or 'material unsuitable for children'.
Nope, the block screen said:
Ok, in this particular instance I was in an unusually strong position to know the exact content of the website under discussion. It's not like it's a vast site with hidden nooks and crannies that might house objectionable stuff a webmaster had forgotten about - it's a Wordpress blog related to independent horror film production. There are links to a couple of horror trailers and whatnot, but most of it is concerned with production.
The block screen had a 'Tell us if this is the wrong category' field, which I duly completed and submitted. Less than an hour later, I got an email saying that the category had been reviewed and was being changed to 'entertainment', and by the end of the morning I was able to access the site. By the time I was able to access my own site, though, I was worrying about something else. Fellow filmmaker and thoroughly good guy Kevin Gates had posted on social media a link about his new movie The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill, which is premiering at Film4 Frightfest next month and looks brilliant. The article he linked to about it was at spookyisles.com but could I visit spookyisles? No, I couldn't. This block screen, if possible, actually bugged me more than the last one.
Category: Alternative Beliefs
Alternative... To what, exactly?
Are there suddenly a set of beliefs considered to be the correct ones, from which deviation is unacceptable?
Ok, so it seems that Fortiguard aren't just in the business of keeping vulnerable eyes away from explicit sexual content and blogs about independent filmmaking. Their website describes the alternative beliefs category as blocking "Websites that provide information about or promote religions not specified in Traditional Religions or other unconventional, cultic, or folkloric beliefs and practices". Make of that what you will.
I realise that the relative 'levels' of any filter are set by the company or institution choosing to utilise it, but since Cameron's announcement that he'd really rather like all of us behind a filter unless we specify otherwise all of this stuff gains a new relevance. If we were to acquiesce to such a thing, we would of course be placing an inordinate amount of trust in the people running the filter and, by extension, the technology behind it. If a site is miscategorised and nobody can check whether it is or not because, hey, they're all behind a filter that stops them seeing it because it's 'pornography', there's a problem there.
Of course, there are a whole load of other problems with the entire proposal. For the sake of clarity I've focused on a single grain of sand on the beach here, but non-profit organisation Open Rights Group, who focus on issues of digital rights and freedom of expression have a whole lot more stuff over here.
There are a million questions attached to the whole idea of placing a population behind a wall designed to block information, of course. I suspect the one most likely to echo around households is;
"Is there a way I can turn this off?"
At the point at which there isn't, we'll really be in trouble.