Farming unicorns

As I write, the UK’s electioneering is in full swing and politicians of all shades are making opportunistic statements that may turn out to be signals of future policy. Notable among them was a statement by Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, who revealed that the Conservative Party would ensure under-18s were prevented from seeing adult content on the internet. He did not elaborate exactly how that would be done.

No wonder, because it probably can’t, and in the process of trying it will break everything else. Any attempt to impose blocks on the internet causes collateral damage that outweighs the benefit. That’s because blocks can’t work – that is actually a fundamental design principle of the internet. So any attempt to block anything involves violating the primary tenet of the design of the internet. It’s like trying to block an open field…

There are people walking over the beautiful spring meadows. Most are just enjoying the beauty of it all, but some are going visiting to each other’s houses. Of those, a politician discovers one or two of them going and doing things he and his supporters don’t like. They demand it has to be stopped.

They issue an instruction to block the fields. The objective is unarguably pure and the things that those one or two people are doing are disgusting, so it must be possible, right? If you object to blocking the fields, it only goes to proves that you’re one of those dirty people. Bureaucrats get to work on the demand. They can’t block an open field, so first they build a road across the field. Then they build a police control point in the middle of the road.

Controls circumvented

But people go round the roadblock, so they build a fence along the sides of the road too. But people go round the fence, so they add a fence all around the field. But people go round the field, so they mandate fences across the whole country.

Stopping that bad thing a few people do justifies all the expense and inconvenience for everyone, doesn’t it? Building the fences takes several years, and at the end of the building process the whole country is covered in obstacles of various kinds.

There are now so many miles of fences and they get in everyone’s way whatever they are doing. The fences are mostly out of sight, so people just jump over them. The police start to arrest people who do. That bad thing is so bad it’s crucial to act tough, even though most of the people they are arresting are just going harmlessly about their business and the thought of doing that bad thing the politician objected to never entered their heads.

But there aren’t enough police to patrol every fence, so they still can’t arrest everyone. They decide to add security cameras to every fence. Obviously they can’t watch all the cameras all the time so they record all the video, automate the analysis and then send teams out to people’s homes to arrest them for jumping fences, regardless of why they did it – the camaras don’t record intent. This is not about the bad thing the politician objected to any more. It’s now about respecting the law for the sake of the law. The rule of law must be upheld, or we’ll descend into anarchy.

What started as a straightforward moral panic by a down-to earth politician during an election has created a police state. The badness of the problem that the politician was trying to address was never at issue. The problem was his magical thinking. By mandating the impossible in pursuit of an unarguably worthy goal, the politician caused collateral damage that outweighed any benefits. And he didn’t notice; he never goes for walks in the fields.

More magical thinking

And that’s why it’s stupid to demand that things must be blocked on the internet. Any attempt to impose blocks on the internet always causes collateral damage that outweighs the benefit.
That’s because blocks can’t work – that is actually a fundamental design principle of the internet. As John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” So any attempt to block things on the internet naturally involves violating a primary tenet of its design. Demanding that happen is magical thinking of the same order as trying to regulate unicorn farming.

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