Ambiguously-worded and vague laws have caused a lot of trouble in many countries throughout history.
Legislation that uses vague and imprecise language is a powerful and dangerous tool in the wrong hands and can be twisted to punish innocent people.
One example of a law used beyond its original purpose was the United States’ Comstock Act of 1873, which prohibited the sending any “article of an immoral nature” through the mail. In effect, the law was used to prosecute anyone who distributed contraceptives, or information about family planning.
During World War I, while British and German soldiers were given condoms by their governments, American soldiers were advised to practice abstinence since the distribution of condoms was banned. Unsurprisingly, within two years, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases, and it cost the United States over $50 million to treat them.
Today, there are many more examples of ambiguous laws that have been twisted to prosecute all kinds of innocuous actions.
This is partly due to modern technology developing at a faster rate than legislation. The result is that judges must apply outdated laws to completely new situations, as the slow-moving machine of legislation struggles to keep up with the changing times.
Unfortunately, this also means that some may err on the side of caution when they don’t completely understand the technology behind the circumstances.
Take Britain as an example. In trying to protect citizens online, regulators actually ended up banning websites with content related to equal rights, controversial political opinions, and even information about sexual health.
History has shown us the consequences of blocking vital information like this, yet we’re still making the same mistakes.
Check out this list of sites that were accidentally banned in Britain.
Transcript of above graphic: 10 Websites Britain Blocked
Nearly one in five of the most visited websites on the web were blocked by the adult content filters installed on Britain’s broadband and mobile networks, according to the Open Rights Group. However, it wasn’t just porn that was blocked as filters blocked anything considered “potentially harmful.”
Here are 10 websites that British content filters blocked for having “adult content” that should never have been censored.
Dedicated to women’s interests, Jezebel’s tagline is “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing.”
- Jezebel is one of several blogs owned by Gawker Media.
- Gawker Media also owns:
A British political blog whose slogan is “tittle tattle, gossip, and rumors about Westminster’s Mother of Parliaments written from the perspective of the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions. The intention being to blow it up with gunpowder…”
- Guido Fawkes is run by editor Paul Staines
- In 2007, The Telegraph described the blog as “one of Britain’s leading political blogsites.”
- When he found out the blog was censored in the UK, Paul Staines is reported to have said, “We would really appreciate it if TalkTalk would remove us from their block list. The only people who block us are them and the Chinese government.”
A feminist website, sherights.com focuses on issues related to women’s rights.
- Their mantra is “women’s rights are human rights. When they are abused, disrespected or ignored, society as a whole is affected. Not just us women folk.”
- Maureen Shaw founded sherights.com in 2011.
- In 2014, sherights.com was nominated for Best in Show by WEGO Health, a healthcare advocacy social network, for their work on women’s health issues.
- The website covers everything from abortions rights in the media to sexual violence in conflict to feminism on the Internet to sex and sexuality.
- On finding out sherights was blocked, Maureen Shaw had this to say: “We are concerned with the message that blocking our site sends: that pro-woman, pro-equality, pro-human rights subject matter is somehow offensive, inappropriate or otherwise problematic.”
Philip Raby Porsche Dealership
Philip Raby operates a Porsche brokerage and consulting firm in West Sussex, England.
- Raby didn’t realize his website had been blocked by O2 (an ISP provider in the UK) until his customers pointed it out to him.
- Once he found out his site had been blocked he told The Guardian: “We must have lost some business as a result. It doesn’t look great telling people the site is not suitable for under 18s!”
From Homs to Istanbul
From Homs to Istanbul is the blog and journal of Aboud Dandachi, a Syrian from the city of Homs.
- Between February 2012 and September 2013, Dandachi moved three times because of artillery and tank assaults, as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on Damascan neighborhoods.
- Dandachi’s opinions on issues in Syria have appeared in numerous outlets, including:
- The Guardian
- The LA Times
- Dandachi is the author of an e-book titled, “The Doctor, the Eye Doctor and Me: Analogies and Parallels Between the World of Doctor Who and the Syrian Conflict”.
TorrentFreak is a website that brings the latest news about file sharing, copyright, privacy, torrent search engines, and protocol technologies.
- Lennart Renkema, who goes by the pseudonym “Ernesto Van Der Sar,” founded TorrentFreak in 2005.
- In May 2014, TorrentFreak was 88th on Technorati’s top 100 blogs.
- TorrentFreak has been featured on CNN, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, and the LA Times.
A sexual health information website for everyone, but especially young people 14 and up.
- Justin Hancock, founder of Bish, has been a youth worker for 16 years.
- Bish reached its first million views in November 2012, its second million in December 2012, and its third million in July 2013.
- The website focuses on giving honest and open information about sexual health to teenagers, and includes such topics as:
- Bish also has resources for parents, carers, and educators.
- Justin has a book out called The Bish Book: A real and relevant guide to sex, relationships and you.
Edinburgh Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre
This is the website of the Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland.
- They offer a number of services to women, all members of the transgender community, and young survivors aged 12 and over who have experienced sexual violence from male or female abusers at any time in their lives, including:
- Free and confidential emotional and practical support
- EWRSAC has operated for 35 years.
- Based in Edinburgh, they also have an outreach service: East Lothian Sexual Abuse Service (ELSAS).
Sexual Health Scotland
Sexual Health Scotland offers sex education information.
- Users can enter their postcode to find a sexual health centre near them.
- The website covers topics such as:
- Sex and relationships
- Talking about sex
- Getting help
- Readers can also find information on:
- Types of sex
- Sex and the law
- The risks of sex
Reducing the Risk of Domestic Abuse
- This website provides users with information what domestic abuse is, and how to get help, whether you’re being abused or think you might be an abuser.
- The website provides phone numbers for a variety of organizations, including:
- Victim Support
- Kiran Asian Women’s Aid
- Men’s Advice Line
- Broken Rainbow (LGBT)
- Elder Abuse
Why were these sites blocked?
- The UK’s former Prime Minister, David Cameron, spearheaded the latest push by the country’s broadband companies to introduce adult content blocks on the nation’s web.
- The blocks are designed to filter out pornography, suicide, and self-harm related content, weapons and violence, gambling, drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.
- As a result, the filters censored other sites that shouldn’t have been blocked.
Many people agree that children shouldn’t have access to information and content intended for adults, but a significant number of websites were blocked that either had nothing to do with “adult content,” or weren’t pornographic in nature.
“Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.” — George Bernard Shaw
- Internet Filters Blocking One in Five Most-Popular Websites – theguardian.com
- Org’s Blocked Project Finds Almost 1 in 5 Sites Are Blocked by Filters – openrightsgroup.com
- Jezebel – jezebel.com
- Search and Destroy – newyorker.com
- I’m Anna Holmes, Founder of Jezebel, and This Is How I Work – lifehacker.com
- Guido Fawkes’ Blog – order-order.com
- Focus on Labour Website in Peerage Row – telegraph.co.uk
- sherights. – sherights.com
- UK ‘Porn Filters’ Block One Fifth Of All Websites – forbes.com
- WEGO Health Activist Awards – awards.wegohealth.com
- Inspiring Agitation: Maureen Shaw and Lindsay Menard-Freeman – thewomentakeover.com
- A Fifth of All Websites Blocked by Web Filters – wired.co.uk
- Philip Raby Porsche – philipraby.co.uk
- Internet Filters Blocking One in Five Most-Popular Websites – theguardian.com
- From Homs to Istanbul – dandachi.com
- UK Government Tackles Wrongly-Blocked Websites – bbc.com
- About TorrentFreak – torrentfreak.com
- Final Project Interview #2: Ernesto of TorrentFreak.com – uscpwned.blogspot.com
- Pirate Bay Decides to Join the Navy – ecommercetimes.com
- Here’s Technorati’s Final List of Top Blogs before It Disappeared – seocial.com
- Sex, Relationships and You – bishuk.com
- Justin Hancock – about.me
- The Bish Book – bishtraining.com
- Edinburgh Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre – ewrasac.org.uk
- Sexual Health Scotland – sexualhealthscotland.co.uk
- Reducing the Risk of Domestic Abusereducingtherisk.org.uk
- Porn Filters Block Sex Education Websitesbbc.com
- Sky Updates Porn Filter after Row over Blocking – bbc.com
- George Bernard Shaw – brainyquote.com