Mumsnet: a long way since Gina Ford.

It was brought to my attention last night that internet parenting behemoth, Mumsnet, had put its weight behind Ed Vaisey’s recent suggestion that the UK’s ISPs should block all porn at source, so that anyone who wants to look at it will have to opt in.

The reason is ostensibly to protect children from seeing anything untoward. However, as well as being technically unworkable, this proposal is a major curtailment of our privacy, our rights as individuals and a Trojan horse to allow commercial interests to control what we do online.

However, the outcry from more technically savvy members led the site admins firstly to pull the campaign page proper, then all reference to it. This, however, only happened late last night after some vociferous objections. The admins claimed that they are “rethinking” the campaign wording.

The site has come a long way since they were sued in 2007 by unqualified “baby expert” Gina Ford when some posters criticised her peculiar and frequently somewhat cruel, unfounded “advice.”

The power of Mumsnet, just 4 years on, to alter things that are not to its liking was recently highlighted when EastEnders, in a typical New Year Grand Guignol storyline, followed a cot death with a King Solomon style baby abduction. Quite understandably some people found this plotline upsetting.

However, Mumsnet (as a gestalt entity) decided that the storyline was so very offensive that it should be changed. The gradual increase in calls for the plot to be firstly ditched completely, then curtailed, led the BBC to actually cut the plotline short: it was due to run for most of this year. Two of the actresses involved have since resigned citing the controversy as a factor.

Meanwhile, the BBC enjoyed high ratings as the press coverage promoted the show and, presumably, some bereaved mothers had the plotline shoved in their faces when they might otherwise have simply avoided it as too upsetting.

They have over 50,000 regular visitors and they are a vocal lot. One poster, “Riven”, had tea with David Cameron prior to the election. A few weeks ago, she was driven to a crisis because poor respite care for her severely disabled daughter. She posted that she felt she had to put her daughter into residential care. No less than 5 hours later, Riven was all over the place. All the major TV news channels and all the major daily newspapers featured her plight.

So it’s in this context that I found Mumsnet’s new pet issue alarming. It genuinely does wield some power.

At first glance the proposal seems reasonable. After all, we have age ratings for DVDs and a 9pm watershed on the TV, so how is an opt-in porn filter any different?

Well, firstly, and the reason Mumsnet’s “geek” posters (who offer assistance to members with technical problems whether site related or not) were up in arms and have since been on strike, is that the system is unworkable. How would such a filter distinguish between Page 3, an instructional photograph of breastfeeding, and hardcore porn? According to Justine, the filter

Wah! we are not for a minute suggesting that we would back something that censored breasts

The truth is that it cannot, and will most likely block the lot.

Under the proposal, ISPs would take responsibility for filtering content, so much of the enormous cost would be passed to customers. Smaller ISPs would probably go to the wall. It should in any event not be an ISP’s responsibility to stop customers looking at boobies, any more than it is a newsagent’s responsibility to ensure that children don’t accidentally look up at the top shelf magazines.

The point was made on Mumsnet that sites like, well, Mumsnet would be banned. A regular feature on the forums is “bumsex Fridays” where posters get tipsy and discuss, well, bumsex. Other threads have included “Never Google Dragon Butter” and “What’s Lemonparty?”

The discussions on Mumsnet which followed the geeks’ strike focused almost entirely on the technical problems and prompted the site’s admins to pull the campaign page (although the link and details still remain on the Campaigns front page).

However, few posters focused on the main issue: the moral one.

It is not and should not be the government’s responsibility to make sure that children do not see inappropriate material. It is the child’s parents or carers’. That some parents or carers do not have the wherewithal or the necessary level of concern so to do is not my problem, nor is it anyone else’s problem. If a mother is not technically capable enough to install web filters or just to move a computer out of a child’s room and into the living room, that is her problem alone.

Mumsnet is demanding that we all take on this burden.

To take the DVD and game age ratings as an example again, there are 18 rated films and games. That some parents happily buy Call of Duty Black Ops for their 11 year old is not my problem. The age rating is clearly marked. Either they don’t understand or they don’t care. Either way, I don’t feel that I should be affected. Perhaps they could be made to understand or encouraged to care: fine. Stretching the analogy, Mumsnet’s proposal would suggest that such games and films be sold only in officially mandated shops accessible only by adults who have previously applied for a special permit.

And what would happen then? Well, determined children would get their parents to buy the game anyway. Or they would get the unconcerned parent of their mate to buy it.

Similarly, determined children could very easily continue to look at Tubgirl. Their older brother would opt in: their dad would opt in.

In discussions, Justine Roberts, one of Mumsnet’s founders, was dismissive of any suggestion that the proposal would affect civil liberties:

I think there have been some really valid points about workability raised here but the “this is the thin end of the wedge on censorship” one doesn’t make sense to me. We already censor loads of things in the name of child protection on the internet and elsewhere. Of course there are valid concerns about where you draw the line but you can’t deny that we do draw the line already all over the place – we censor illegal images, we rate dvds, we have a tv watershed.

She also stated, rather patronisingly (and mistakenly, as the IWF only filter sites that others have flagged as suspect):

Right now there’s an organisation called the Internet Watch Foundation which sifts through everything on the net (not a jolly job) and slaps a label on a lot of very horrible illegal stuff which the ISPs then filter out.

It is to Mumsnet’s credit that they have taken the objections on board and have, for the moment, put the campaign on hold and instead focused on important things, like trying to ban the sale of bikinis to the under 9s.

What this proposal would in fact enable is full scale control over what everyone in the UK can and cannot access. There are big commercial interests involved: News International or Sony would love to prevent any infringements of their copyright by taking the UK’s ISPs in a stranglehold and demanding that they deliver up all offenders. By permitting a universal porn filter, the UK would be taking the first steps.

The UK, unlike China (where apparently 30,000 people are employed to police the internet), subscribes to the philosophy that its citizens are allowed to do whatever is not illegal: one of the tenets of the rule of law. This would start to change.

Even if our currently very pliant government dug its heels in and resisted Rupert, we would still have our rights curtailed.

Why stop at porn? We don’t want children to look at terrorist sites, do we? Let’s ban those too, using the same blunt tools so Wikipedia pages are also blocked. Sites like Harry’s Place often post links to Youtube videos of Islamist hate preachers: those would be blocked too.

Racist sites? Of course: but naturally sites like Searchlight would also be caught in the net, as well as (at a tangent) sites for tattoo enthusiasts (there are online catalogues of neo-Nazi tattoos to aid identification). Never mind. Wikileaks? Well, obviously Wikileaks would be blocked…

Finally and most importantly, my main objection is this. The Internet is the most fantastic invention of the 20th century. The very thought that, even 20 years ago, one would have to go to the library and look in an encyclopaedia to find something out is faintly absurd.

We have the library of Alexandria at our fingertips. Yes, the library has dark corners and odd people lurking behind neglected shelves. It has places that I do not want my children to see.

I do not want a turnstile installed to prevent my free and easy access. I am an adult and I am responsible for what my daughter sees. It is for me to stop her going into those corners.

I do not want the library to be refurbished as a bright and airy “information centre” where I can look at officially mandated things and would never stumble across anything I might possibly find troubling. I want to be able to go where I please and say what I please in the library, including being permitted to stand on a table and flash my bum at somebody.

10 thoughts on “Mumsnet: a long way since Gina Ford.”

  1. @mr Morgan: now I’m not on a mobile device I can answer you at leisure. I don’t agree with their Let Girls be Girls campaign. The truth is that the bra that started it all hadn’t been on sale for years.

    I haven’t seen anything particularly heinous. Yes, you can buy moulded bras for younger girls but these aren’t “padded” although someone with no underwear knowledge might assume they are. The moulding is a thin layer of foam that gives a smooth outline and is much more concealing than an ordinary plain fabric bra. They are not underwired and certainly aren’t “push up”.

    For me a moulded non underwired bra is an essential and certainly something I’d recommend as a first bra, especially in a shade of beige, brown or dark pink as it won’t show under a white top, e.g. a school shirt.

    It irritates me very slightly that the campaign might mean major retailers baulk at selling bras like that.

    I have 3 passions, internet freedom, bras and breastfeeding :-/

  2. One thing that no one seems to talk about is this: what’s wrong with porn? yes, there is some truly depraved stuff online but equally there are sites that aren’t exploitative and do promote a healthy sexuality (eg ‘i feel myself’). Sexuality isn’t bad, porn isn’t bad.

    Like anything involving children talking to them, being understanding and caring will get a much better result that “it’s bad” or as it would be implemented “this site is banned” that’ll really stop the average 13 year old….

  3. Great post, I completely agree. This is what happens when people demand quick “fixes” to society without thinking them through to their logical conclusion. I hope you manage to make a difference there.

  4. I can only agree with all you say. Internet censorship is wrong, parents need to be responsible, which seems something that escapes so many. Just deciding where to draw the line can be hard enough: anyone else remember the contoversy when a Wikipedia page got blocked by several UK ISPs on the grounds that it contained an indecent image of a child, despite the fact the ulbum had been sold in record shops since 1976?

    Leaving that aside (!), the tech issues are *huge*. Maintaining even a semi-accurate filter list is a huge task, plus the point you make above- if a house has one connection, and it’s behind a NAT router, as is usually the case, if anyone in the house unlocks the filter, then all devices in the house become unlocked.

    The phrase ‘Get a Grip’ springs to mind.

  5. Presumably your reference to their “more important” campaign to get H&M to stop selling high heels to young girls was just rhetorical?

    Because all the above (valid and sound) arguments would seem to discredit that campaign too, for similar reasons.

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