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Internet filtering and government ‘protection’

Internet filtering has been a hot topic in the news the past few days. In Britain, prime minister David Cameron has proposed that all British internet service providers must turn on a “family-friendly filter” by default for all users, which would only be turned off at the account holder’s specific request. The goal: to keep pornography away from children.

Today, Gospel Coalition blogger Joe Carter published a piece titled “Why Online Pornography is Being Blocked in the UK—and Why It Should Be in the U.S. Too”. Says Carter,

[T]he support for unlimited access to pornography, distributed freely in every home with an Internet connection, is not a cause that any Christian should tolerate, much less support.

Now on one hand I want to agree with Mr. Carter on this one. I think internet filtering is an excellent idea. I have my home computers set up with filters to help keep myself out of trouble and to try to help protect my children. But I’m hesitant to support filtering as a government requirement, for at least a couple of reasons:

Technical Implementation
To put it simply: it ain’t that easy. Existing filtering sites/mechanisms are typically based on blacklists – lists of domains known to contain objectionable material. And the granularity on those blacklists isn’t so good. An image sharing site, for example, could contain both perfectly acceptable and very improper material. So do you block it or let it go? And secondly, let’s face it: how many teenage boys with hacking skills are going to let this slow them down? It won’t last long.

On Principle…
I’m also concerned about establishing the precedent that the government should dictate content filtering of some sort. Sure, right now in Britain you can request to have it turned off. But once the filtering is there, it’s a much shorter step to just say it needs to stay turned on all the time for some content. And who decides which content?

Sure, it’s easy for Christians to agree that porn should be filtered. But what happens when the government decides that maybe certain “hate speech” should be filtered, too? What happens when the government decides that “hate speech” includes speaking what you believe the Bible says about, say, homosexuality? Suddenly that government-mandated filtering doesn’t seem so wonderful, does it?

There’s a right way to do it
Here’s the thing: I’m not against filtering. Not in the least. And if ISPs want to provide filtering, even turned on by default, as a service to their customers, and as good citizens, I think that’d be excellent. Every parent should be encouraged to take steps to protect their children from things they don’t need to see.

I’ll be honest: I’ve been wrestling with this position quite a bit this morning. I’ve had a good Twitter conversation with my friend Andy Osenga, who disagrees with me on this one. And I’ve certainly not complained when the government has taken steps to restrict unhealthy/destructive personal behavior for the public good. (I love Iowa’s no-smoking laws.) But I think this situation is different.

Unrestricted internet communication is the 21st century analogue of the free speech that the First Amendment prohibits the Congress from infringing upon. And I’d rather not start giving away that freedom.

And yeah, I know I’m making a slippery slope argument. But this is the government that in the past decade has told us that it’s just “enhanced interrogations” of the really bad guys, and next thing you know we have drones killing a 16-year-old American citizen without any due process. So forgive me if I’m not inclined to believe that the government won’t expand its reach at every opportunity.

There are a lot of current rights / privileges that American Christians enjoy that we could consider worth giving up in order to better follow Christ or to have a better society. But speech? Eesh, let’s be careful there.

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