The British Censorwall: Libertarian Paternalism gone wrong

While having ISPs give their customers the option to filter stuff for them seems a laudable enough goal, the way this government is going about it seems highly suspicious to me. The proposal as it now stands makes it mandatory for ISPs to provide blocking, and the default is to have it on. For a government apparently enamoured with Libertarian Paternalism a la Nudge, this is particularly dodgy.

The idea behind Libertarian Paternalism is that in situations where the government or authority can't but get in the way, they should do so in a way that gives people the choice if they want it, but has a sensible default. So, for example, when Child Trust Funds were created, multiple providers were created (a good thing), but if you didn't choose one, you'd get one selected at random for you (better than not getting the money at all, but way worse than having an expert choose a sensible default - perhaps this is a bad example, but I can't actually think of a good example they've produced *sigh*).

In this particular situation, there's no actual concrete reason the government had to get involved. Having decided to get involved in Internet censorship, there was even less reason to take the route they have. Presumably, with a bit of arm-twisting, it'd be perfectly possible to get all the big ISPs signed up 'voluntarily'. Making it mandatory just clobbers minor and specialist ISPs with requirements that they might be ideologically opposed to. So, there must be some reason to make it fully mandatory. Moreover, making the default to be censored is a particularly odd decision.

Why would you go for default censorship? The normal argument is that you would make the default the thing that is most appropriate, best for people, etc., and people can override that if they like. However, everyone's survived fine so far without all this blocking, so it's not clear why this should be the new default. It's certainly not a subtle transition, but it emphasises the new regime. And this is what I suspect the decision is for - it's not a default that's best for consumers, it's the default best for the government. Assuming people don't override the default, they'll get nice big take-up of their blocking regime. If people can't choose an ISP that doesn't offer blocking, people can't vote with their money. If the default were no blocking, the take-up would be tiny, and the government would look stupid.

So, it's a radical reduction in choice. When I say people can't vote with their money, they really can't. If you're not charged for blocking, you're not getting free blocking, but instead everyone's paying for it, whether they want it or not. However opposed you are to this censorship, you'll be paying for it, as a prerequisite for getting internet access.

This ham-fisted nanny state stuff is supposed to be what Labour was all about. Why on earth are the Lib Dems and Conservatives, ramming it through?

Posted 2013-08-01.