Sex Education & Government / Internet Censorship

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The #CensoredUK hashtag, spearheaded by the Sex and Censorship group, has been drawing attention to some of the unexpected sites that end up being blocked when internet providers buckle to government demands to censor “adult content”.

Nine out of 10 homes will have porn filters on their computers by the end of January, after a Government deal with four big internet providers. Web giants TalkTalk, Virgin, Sky and BT, have all agreed to introduce network filters which can block inappropriate content from all the online devices within the home.

Across several mobile internet providers, however, harmless sex and relationships education sites are being blocked by their web filters.  For example, the sexual health charity Brook, has turned up on website checkers as being default blocked. But this is plainly not adult content, so why?

Another site that is blocked in some cases is the NHS page about sex and young people, which contains questions and answers about the changes teens can expect during puberty, advice around not abusing alcohol, and support for people who want to remain abstinent.

Most mobile providers offer a service where you can report incorrectly categorised sites. It’s unclear what happens when sex ed sites are reported, however.

And a separate study shows over-zealous Wi-Fi filters are blocking many harmless and helpful sites. One in three public Wi-Fi hotspots are preventing access to harmless sex education and religious sites, the research by AdaptiveMobile carried out during September across 179 locations in Birmingham, Manchester and London found.

Sexual health is not “adult content”. Lumping important (and for many young people, the only) sexual health advice they will have access to in with porn is a mistake.  More to the point, politicians need to understand that making internet providers do so is not the Government’s job.

There is also a concern for LGBT teens, some of whom will not have the support of their families and may have little access to safe, reliable information about sex and sexuality. What about them?

Maybe internet providers mistakenly believe that good, thorough sex and relationships education is available in schools, but as the Wonder Women Better Sex Education campaign has demonstrated this year, it isn’t. Sex ed in schools as it currently exists is not fit for purpose. The teaching guidelines haven’t been updated in over a decade and make no mention of the internet.

There are of course a myriad of other problems with the filters system. Sites that are critical of the way sex and sexuality is reported in the media are at risk of being blocked; the problematic news stories that make the rounds about gay people, trans people, and others won’t necessarily be.

Once a Government gets a taste for censorship, they rarely stop at “adult content”, as well. Think that the blocks accidentally keeping young people away from educational resources is a one off? Just wait until a political blog or forum you read gets blocked under the excuse of “banning extremist speech”. It’s not a question of whether this will happen, it’s when.

The bottom line is understanding the deep irony that by presenting internet censorship in the wrapper of protecting kids, we may actually be keeping them from information that has been shown to actually protect them. The question now is: does the Government care?

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