Who Should Control Our Browsing?
Last month three more websites were added to the list that UK internet service providers are no longer allowed to permit access to. Previously, Pirate Bay was the only site that court orders had decreed was out of bounds for UK users but it is now joined by Fenopy, H33T and Kickass Torrents. This new round of legal action proves that courts clearly have the power and inclination to modify our browsing experience but begs the question: should they?
Controlled browsing has been around in one form or other for years. Most broadband providers ship their hardware with parental controls and some, like TalkTalk‘s Homesafe, even include pre-configured torrent filters. The crucial difference is that these restrictions are either optional or moderated by the person paying for the broadband. It’s only right that parents should be able to protect their children from unsavoury content or individuals. Likewise, age restrictions are a necessary but nonetheless enforced way for governments to protect the younger generation, if somewhat ineffectually. Both of these infringements are temporary, however, and can be circumvented by paying for your own internet or ‘coming of age’.
Governments have other ways of limiting our online experience as well. The US love to band the term ‘threat to national security’ around when either blocking or closing down sites. Especially with the majority of hosting occurring within their borders. The Chinese are famous for it as well, of course. Their blocking of social media sites rivals that of North Korea. As westerners we’re not used to it though and if a government demands restrictions, we’re lucky enough to be able to vote against them in the next election.
Torrent sites are no stranger to legal action either. Historically, they’ve always thumbed their noses at the law regardless of where they’re based. Napster is the obvious example but the authorities targeted the company and shut that down rather than blocking access to it. Our browsing experience wasn’t modified by that case, we could visit the site, it just didn’t exist anymore. That’s the worrying factor in this new spate of restrictions. Effectively the British Phonographic Industry and nine major record labels have indirectly restricted the entire UK from accessing a total of four sites to date. That might only be a minuscule section of the web and makes no reference to the illegal activity occurring on those sites but it does put that power in their hands. It continues a precedent, set by the Pirate Bay case over a year ago, that the courts and, by proxy, private companies with private interests can inform, modify and ultimately restrict our browsing experience.