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Big Mouth: Breaking the web

Tonight – whether you like it or not – we’re going to party like it’s 1993. History tends to repeat itself, and Gary Marshall isn’t too happy about it

This article first appeared in issue 235 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

I love what you do. I really mean it. As a veteran of the early-90s internet – a world of CompuServe forums, GIFs and 14.4kbps modems – today’s web feels fantastically futuristic. The modern, mobile internet is miraculous, so much so that I have to stop myself running up to complete strangers in the street and bellowing, “I have the internet! It really works!”

Unfortunately, while web designers and developers are boldly going forward to 2013, other people seem hellbent on taking us all back to 1993. The effort you put into making sites look gorgeous and work wonderfully on every conceivable device is often totally negated by numbskulls. At a rough guess, I would say that 98 per cent of my time using the mobile web is spent swearing at websites, hurling expletives at interstitials, unleashing angry utterances at URL shorteners and firing f-bombs at Facebook.

The single most fundamental principle of the World Wide Web – the mechanism by which you click on something and something then appears – is being deliberately and widely broken.

I am sick and tired of sites telling me that I’m doing the internet wrong. They might tell me this with a fullscreen ad for an iPad app, with a close button that dumps me on the site’s front page instead of the page I actually wanted to see. They might tell me that to see the photo, or quote, or video, I have to install an app that tells everyone I know what I’m looking at. Or they might tell me that to read a publicly available news story, a story with a proper URL that isn’t behind a paywall, I have to log into Facebook first.

Paywalls, walled gardens and overly aggressive advertising aren’t new, of course. History repeats itself, and online history tends to repeat more quickly – so it’s with mild, head-shaking despair rather than outright fury that I see the government’s talking about censoring online content again. This time the villain isn’t pornography; it’s sites that talk about suicide. The pattern is familiar, with ISPs being urged to block these sites now on a ‘voluntary’ basis or face legal compulsion later.

I have enormous sympathy for anyone who has lost a loved one to anything, and to lose someone to suicide is particularly hard. However, the proposed censorship is a knee-jerk response to tabloid hysteria – and it’s a hypocritical one too, given that despite the proven link between overly detailed reporting and copycat deaths, tabloids routinely flout suicide reporting guidelines.

Ministers will, of course, tell us that they’ve drawn a line in the sand. Let us filter this one thing, they say, and we will filter nothing more. I’d have more confidence in that pronouncement if they could stick to the script, but they can’t: Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb says that such sites are “just one example” of “dangerous and disturbing online content”.

The line was drawn when we first filtered illegal pornography; when the focus turned to extremists; when ISPs were compelled to block The Pirate Bay; and today the line is being drawn again. We already know what happens next.

Photography: Iain MacLean

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