Internet blocking law and governance in the United Kingdom: an examination of the Cleanfeed system
McIntyre, Thomas Jeremiah
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This thesis examines the legal and governance issues presented by internet blocking (“filtering”) systems through the use of the United Kingdom’s Cleanfeed system as a national case study. The Cleanfeed system – which aims to block access to child abuse images – has been influential both domestically and internationally but has been the subject of relatively little sustained scrutiny in the literature. Using a mixed doctrinal and empirical methodology this work discusses the evolution of Cleanfeed and considers the way in which government pressure has led to a private body without any express legislative basis (the Internet Watch Foundation) being given the power to control what UK internet users can view. The thesis argues that the Cleanfeed system sits at the intersection of three distinct trends – the use of architectural regulation, regulation through intermediaries and self-regulation – which individually and collectively present significant risks for freedom of expression and good governance online. It goes on to identify and examine the fundamental rights norms and governance standards which should apply to internet blocking and tests the system against them, arguing in particular that Cleanfeed fails to meet the requirements developed by the European Court of Human Rights under Articles 6 and 10 ECHR. It considers the extent to which Cleanfeed might be made amenable to these principles through the use of judicial review or actions under the Human Rights Act 1998 and concludes that the diffuse structure of the system and the limited availability of horizontal effect against private bodies will leave significant aspects beyond the effective reach of the courts. This work also assesses claims that the Cleanfeed system is a proof of concept which should be extended so as to block other material considered objectionable (such as websites which “glorify terrorism”). It argues that the peculiar features of the system mean that it represents a best case scenario and does not support blocking of other types of content which are significantly more problematic. The thesis concludes by considering proposals for reform of the Cleanfeed system and the extent to which greater public law oversight might undermine the desirable features associated with self-regulation.