451 unavailable

In response to British Prime Minister David Cameron's plans to introduce compulsory porn filters, which would mean every household in the UK would have to actively opt-in to be able to access pornography, the UK-based Open Rights Group is encouraging ISPs to use a 451 error code to inform users that content has been blocked for legal reasons. The number comes from Ray Bradbury's dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 (1953), which in turn derives its title from the temperature at which books burn.

In Bradbury's novel, 'firemen' are employed to burn the homes of anyone who is found to be in the possession of books, which contain forbidden knowledge. While the firemen are employed by the government, it is most often other members of the public who inform on anyone who is found to own a book. The fireman protagonist himself is eventually reported by his own wife, and forced to burn down his own home. In the world Bradbury depicts, most average people have come to truly believe that the knowledge contained in books is dangerous and threatening to the stability of society. In this case it is not Big Brother who watches, as in that other classic dystopia, but other people. As the fire chief himself says:

It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, and you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade-journals.

In relation to this, it's interesting to consider just how many UK citizens have been perfectly willing to submit to Cameron's plans, including Deborah Orr at The Guardian, who was confused by the "roar of libertarian outrage" which greeted the plans, "as if computer access to hot and cold running arousal aids was some kind of basic human right." Many agree that unacceptable content should be censored, as one user comment stated:

If a porn user wishes to opt-in and they have nothing to be ashamed of then what's wrong with that? The fact that as a society we're creating a healthy boundary by censoring porn on the web (as in film censoring) which personally I think is a good thing.

The emphasis here is that only those who do have something to be ashamed of should be worried. It follows from this that anyone who disagrees with the implementation of a compulsory filter must have something to be ashamed of. Orr mentions that "the angry arguments against David Cameron's opt-in filter proposals seem to imply that it's normal to want access to porn, and abnormal not to want access to porn." According to Ogi Ogas, co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, around 10-15% of all web searches are for porn. Carrol et al. (2008) studied pornography acceptance and use within a population of young adults (18-26). Results revealed that roughly two thirds (67% ) of young men and one half (49%) of young women agree that viewing pornography is acceptable, whereas nearly 9 out of 10 (87%) young men and nearly one third (31%) of young women reported using pornography. In fact, for most adults it probably is normal to want access to porn. The opt-in plan itself implies that it is not normal, that it is something only a minority of people would want, which is why the default position should be set to ban porn.

The fact that the plan is also bound to fail when it comes to actually stopping children from accessing pornography should set alarm bells ringing. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has already described the plan as "ridiculous," while Jim Gamble, head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said that the measures won't stop images of child abuse from being spread online. Simon Davies at PrivacySurgeon.org has satirically praised the plans as a "stroke of genius" as they will inspire even children who had no previous interest in porn to get around the filter:

As kids overcome the ISP blocks, more and more challenges will be thrown up by government, thus ensuring that young people get to network and share more information about how to defeat the system. What better way to build strong new communities with a shared vision. Awesome.

What has been played down by the government is that the automatic filter will also block access to "violent material," "extremist and terrorist related content," "anorexia and eating disorder websites," "suicide related websites," "web forums," and even the ill-defined category of "esoteric material." Perhaps Deborah Orr would also ask why a 'normal' person would want access to any of these types of content. And here we see why the idea of a '451 unavailable' page truly is a stroke of genius. Each time the page appeared in place of something we had searched for we would be reminded of the extremely subjective nature of the labels 'extremist,' 'subversive,' 'unacceptable,' 'esoteric,' and the importance of the freedom of information.

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