Will social work sites be burned up by the UK firewall?
Is the UK government’s proposal of an opt-out ‘parental firewall’ a matter for social work? After all it is being promoted as ‘parental’: helping parents protect their children from exposure to pornography, the promotion of suicide and anorexia, to name just a few of the ills and evils faced by modern society.
Does it matter that, in a drive to protect children, this move would have huge implications for free speech in restricting public access to the internet?
Sure, there is to be an opt-out button, but what effect will that have?
On Social Work
As one UK blogger has succinctly put it, “Coverage of important issues like pornography, child abuse, LGBT, eating disorders, depression, suicide, domestic violence, drug use and sexual health advice will be forced out of mainstream coverage, and made virtually inaccessible to anyone whose family has enabled web censorship in their home.” No more access to BASW online, or SCIE reports for social workers then! I can hardly imagine local authorities and private employers lifting access on work based internet access so no more work based online research for social workers, especially on sensitive subjects such as ritualistic abuse (‘esoteric’ sites are also likely to be subject to barring) – more work to be done at home!
Women, and men, suffering from domestic violence, patients with mental health or addictions problems, children who are being abused and want to find help, may all find themselves with reduced options for seeking information and help. It’s not enough to say that these victims should contact their doctor, social worker, the police, teacher or any other of a number of people and organisations who can offer support and help. As social workers we know those are options, but we also know that people take a long time to find the courage to make those contacts. In the meantime they seek information from wherever they can find it, including the internet. Even, in one case, a 7 year old child apparently contacting a Facebook moderator because she was being abused by her uncle and was too scared to ask elsewhere for help. On occasion I have successfully encouraged vulnerable clients to use media such as television and the internet to reinforce messages I have been trying to promote – perhaps no more.
On vulnerable children
What about the children? Children who are already protected by their parents will continued to be protected. The very ones the government seeks to protect, and especially the most vulnerable among them, the abused and neglected, will continue to be at risk. As social workers we know that the homes where the most vulnerable children live are the same homes where the opt-out button is most likely to be applied. The same homes where pornography, dirty needles, drugs and neglect are already physical daily hazards to be navigated.
I’m not alone in my concerns. The Electronic Frontier Foundation have pointed out that “…if you wish to defend your nation’s children from abuse, when such abuse is frequently from within the family then locking children away from external but “adult” advice and giving the key to those who control the rest of their lives, is the worst possible strategy. That’s why youth advice charities and abuse survivors have come out against these filters.
How will the firewall affect further and higher education? How will universities and colleges respond to the opt-out button?
I don’t particularly want to view pornography but who will draw the line, who will define what is or is not acceptable. Several years ago there was a humorous news reporting of Daily Star journalists being unable to access their own newspaper’s website because it violated the company’s firewall access policy*. What if a teacher of senior school pupils or college students wants to set an exercise comparing the quality of news reporting in different publications, does that mean The Sun (famous in the UK for its Page 3 pictures) will not be accessible for comparison online even though paper copies can be bought in every High Street and beyond in the country? Would that exercise be possible when there is the chance that not all students would have access to the necessary information at home, and almost certainly not able to access it in the library or possibly even in school or college or university? Would the teacher be castigated for including The Sun in the first place, when probably half their students can see the same newspaper at home?
Common among bloggers and commentators (way to many for me to cite here) is the view that the opt-out button will have a sub-conscious self-censoring effect on us all. We will have to make a decision to declare what we want access to. We will think twice before we opt to be able to access (but not necessarily actually view) anything that might be related to violence, terrorism or pornography. We might want to be able to access some aspects, low key elements, of these areas for our work, particularly if we are involved in social work, policing, education or even journalism, but we would have to think twice before we clicked that button, lest government agents learn of our choices and label us subversive.
Following on from the recent revelations in the US about the extent to which governments can obtain access to our personal information, e-correspondence and activities, also common among bloggers and commentators is the view that the extent of the firewall proposals, as revealed by the Open Rights Group, is a backdoor method of UK government increasing their control of the British public.
The Spectator online considers the risk that these attempts to tackle online pornography from a British perspective will only push pornography further ‘underground’ where the most dangerous porn can already be accessed, making it less traceable and more dangerous. Contrary to the government position this will endanger rather than protect the abused and vulnerable.
The government proposals show a naivete in understanding the perversity of human nature and how quickly those who want to will subvert any restrictions, as this Yahoo! News report suggests the possibility of blocking all non-porn sites!
There is no doubt still much to be revealed about the government’s plans but these proposals, due to take effect later this year, are pernicious and dangerous and do little to protect the vulnerable but rather take away some of their resources. As social workers we should concern ourselves with the effect not only on our own lives but on those we strive to serve, the vulnerable.
* This was at least 4-5 years ago and I have not been able to find confirmation of this report online. If anyone remembers this and can confirm the story, or provide a link, that would be much appreciated.
Just a few of the many blogs and commentaries on this subject not already cited above – in no particular order