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Conservative MP wants Canada to mandate internet filters to block porn

Joy Smith hopes to emulate British Prime Minister David Cameron's web censor plan

Winnipeg MP Joy Smith wants Canada to implement internet porn filters.

Joy Smith doesn't watch porn, nor does she understand why anyone would want to, but she thinks it's your choice to do so if you wish — just so long as you're 18 or older.

And to accomplish this, she's suggesting a great Canadian internet filter.

Smith released a statement proposing the idea of a Canadian nanny system, as it is known, after British Prime Minister David Cameron introduced plans to force internet service providers to work with his government to create a filter that blocks out all hardcore pornography. The firewall would have to be pre-installed into all wireless routers and could only be turned off if a user over the age of majority does so.

Smith lauds Cameron's "bold approach," saying that she's hoping to open the discussion here in Canada. While she doesn't have any immediate plans to introduce legislation to that effect, she hopes to get more support for the idea.

She says that the idea isn't about restricting freedom — "All an adult has to do if they want to watch porn is tick a little box" — it's about combatting the harm she says porn can have on children.

Smith admits: "I don't know why people want to watch porn. I don't."

Steve Anderson calls the idea of a mandatory, nation-wide filter "ridiculous.”

Anderson is the Executive Director for Open Media, which advocates for an open, deregulated internet.

"It goes against conservative values, and Canadian values of personal responsibility and freedom," he says. "It's overkill. It's like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly."

Anderson argues that a better solution would be to "empower users" and improve and promote opt-in filters that parents can choose to use. He says that filtering the internet for young children is "a good discussion to have; it's a valid concern," but he says that Smith's is a "reckless approach," that would "cause a lot of collateral damage."

That sort of unintentional censorship happened at Tim Hortons stores across the country after its family-friendly complimentary WiFi filtered out Daily Xtra's website. The coffee chain eventually backed down and unblocked Daily Xtra after a social media backlash.

Smith says she wants to avoid situations like that. She would be open to the idea of publishing a list of all the websites blocked by the filter, she says, so there can be accountability and oversight. She wants to develop the filter "in collaboration with everybody."

But Anderson says efforts to build this sort of system worldwide have been "fraught with loopholes and censorship."

Australia's six-year-old experiment with internet filters is perhaps the most well-known example. In 2007, the Labour Government proposed two filters: one, a mandatory filter that would be impossible to opt-out of and would focus on illegal activities like drug use and illicit pornography, like that featuring children or violent acts; and another, a voluntary national filter, run through internet companies, which can be opted-out of, like what Cameron and Smith are after.

The Kevin Rudd government had little political capital for the idea and opposition was fierce. The government's plan for a mandatory filter was based on Interpol's list of “the-worst-of-the-worst,” but even the more targeted blacklist faced opposition when it was released on Wikileaks. It was found to feature sites for political parties, euthanasia activists and, famously, a dentist's office. The plug was eventually pulled on the idea.

"I think we can learn that lesson from Australia and not repeat those mistakes," says Anderson.

Smith sees this as a problem of tackling the issue too late. "We should have had this conversation 20 years ago," she says, noting that the average age of first exposure to porn is 12, which she says is upsetting. Smith says one father called her office, opposing her plan, and bragged that his eight-year-old son watches porn. Smith calls that "child abuse.” She regrets that the man didn’t leave his name so that she could report him to the authorities.

Smith's intensity comes from her argument that porn can cause "long-term negative consequences" in children. She specifically notes porn's "causative factor in child on child sexual abuse," positing that children who unintentionally stumble upon pornography are curious and may emulate the acts with other children.

"Surely, unchecking a box cannot be too much of a price to pay when it comes to protecting and nurturing our children," Smith said in a statement.

Anderson wonders if the idea is even feasible. Assuming it is, he says, "it would come at a huge cost to the internet service providers and that cost would be passed on to the consumers."

It's unclear if Smith, who is the MP for the Winnipeg-area riding of Kildonan-St Paul, has picked up support from her caucus to push the idea, but at least one MP — Ontario MP Brad Butt — has expressed support via Twitter.