Internet filtering

According to Melanie Phillips, writing in the Daily Mail, ISPs are “nothing less than online pornographers” who “are in effect making themselves complicit in child sexual abuse”.

These statements are being taken very seriously at the highest levels of government. The media and politicians are talking about “forcing” ISPs to “block porn” so that adults must “opt in”. As the Daily Mail says:

Preposterously, ministers argue that requiring web users to opt in to pornography would breach their ‘civil liberties’. What a monstrous perversion of the meaning of those words. Since when has liberty had anything to do with having our children bombarded with filth, without our permission or knowledge?

A mix of children, sexuality and pornography has created a toxic haze, where the idea of looking at real evidence and understanding what might actually be happening has quickly become obscured beneath emotion and fear.

The “opt in” campaign was started by Media Watch (founded by Mary Whitehouse) and later funded by Christian fundamentalist campaigns Safer Media and Premier Christian Radio.

Quite respectable groups have backed the idea. Naureen Khan of the NSPCC argues that parents are not managing to use filtering tools, therefore ISPs must take action:

An opt-in system would ensure that the responsibility for protecting children online is shared between parents and ISPs, because both have a role to play. Acting alone neither one can protect children. This is broadly how it works with TV viewing and film ratings to protect children from inappropriate content. The internet should not been seen as any different.

Only four years ago, a great deal of careful and thoughtful work by ISPs, academics and children’s groups through the Byron Review had concluded that parental education and provision of tools for parents was by far the best solution.

Academics have tried to ascertain whether problems exists, and what impact they may be having. This is of course very difficult to know. On one level, teenage pregnancies are now at their lowest since 1969 despite an increase in pregnancies overall. Children themselves rarely report being disturbed by images online, although a significant number do encounter adult material.

Perhaps the most difficult area of debate is about the type of attitudes and expectations surrounding sex; and to what extent they are being changed by young people accessing pornography.

Equally, common sense would say that teenagers with an interest in pornography are the least likely to be “protected” by default filters, as they are likely to have the technical ability and motivation to evade them. Where young people do need help or education, it seems important to recognize this and act on it, rather than to push a solution that by definition will not help.

In surveys, children themselves tend to be more worried about questions like online bullying, personal privacy or netiquette issues. In other words, the behaviour of other children is the most worrying part of their ‘Internet’ lives. And for many, censorship itself is a patronizing and damaging response, which can damage their access to impartial information.

We should approach these questions from the point of view of the child. Parents should think about where and how their children access the Internet. The age of the child ought to be important. We should recognize that any default filter will not be designed to cater for all children, and will not be appropriate for most adults. It may be appropriate for some children, but not others. It will be either too strong, or too weak.

Even now, most ISPs are trying to persuade government that they should be allowed to present tools to parents as they sign up, and help them choose whether to install them or not, and how to set the appropriately. This is often called “active choice”: the idea is that everyone is asked, and must choose, but no “default” is given.

Crucially, ISPs don’t want specific technologies chosen by government. This is very wise, because filters are very hard to make work. Network filters (including router-based filters) can be evaded by using simple https connections, or proxy servers. They can be evaded by changing network (duh). Thanks to pervasive blocks of sites like Facebook in schools, young users are very aware ways to evade network blocks.

The most effective blocks are based in devices. These can work wherever a laptop or tablet is taken. Devices can be locked down so that a young user cannot install new software to evade a block. However these techniques are not popular with anti-porn campaigners as they rely on parents taking action.

In another situation, you might imagine the Daily Mail screaming “Nanny State” and deploring “Stalinist” decisions being made under a “command economy”.

However, TalkTalk have changed the terms of the debate. They have provided network filtering tools for all of their customers. Their system, built by Chinese defence contractors Huawei, intercepts everyone’s Internet traffic, and scours it for URLs. These are then checked for viruses and content and categorized. If customers wish, access to particular categories can be blocked.

The legality of the interception is still open to debate. However, TalkTalk assure us and their customers that Huawei have no access to their customers traffic and no personal data is stored in China nor accessed by Huawei.

Nevertheless, TalkTalk can’t stop a user from using simple tools to avoid their filtering, like https. Thus TalkTalk cannot prevent a reasonably curious child from accessing pornography or Facebook.

Despite the obvious flaws, TalkTalk’s delightful system and highly trusted technology partners have offered the Christian right an opportunity to demand the same levels of automated controls for every citizen. Furthermore, as a network-based tool, it is the ISP, rather than the parent, who makes the basic choices. So TalkTalk, the Christian right imagines, can “switch off porn” by default.

They are bolstered in their assumption by practice on UK mobile phones. All phones, whether contract or pay as you go, are censored by default. Mobile companies have always restricted Internet content. They had built filtering technologies to compress images and preserve bandwidth, so found it relatively easy to bolt on “adult” blocking.

The blocking is much wider than “porn”. It includes restaurants and bars, gambling sites, hate sites, and online chat forums (except Facebook, of course).

Chat forums are barred in case children encounter grooming. Restaurants and bars sell alcohol, which is banned for under 18s. Tech sites are frequently blocked because they discuss circumvention technologies. Because all of the filtering is based on automatic key word matches, anyone that discusses sexual issues or uses swear words get caught.

The result is that ORG has found climbing clubs, Christian churches, community sites, a site about things you can put on a shelf (“Shelf Appeal”), and many political blogs banned. Not to mention sites like the TOR project and La Quadrature du Net, who both campaign against Internet censorship.

The British National Party’s website is blocked by most mobile companies. Whatever you think about the BNP, the idea that network operators are influencing the political activities of their customers is very disturbing.

Mobile companies justify the filtering on the grounds that they do not know the age of their customers. They say that you and I can easily prove our age by using a credit card or presenting our drivers’ licence to them in a shop.

However, these barriers are rather more significant than mobile companies suggest. Entering credit card details into a mobile phone isn’t exactly user friendly. Not everyone will feel comfortable taking a trip to a shop in order to ask to switch on “adult content”. Most of us are more likely to simply wait until we get to an unfiltered connection at home or work, if we encounter a blocked site.

Mobile users are not informed at sign up, which seems like the obvious way to avoid harm.

However, the worst effects of filtering are experienced by websites, rather than customers. It is impossible to ask all of your visitors to switch the censorship off. You can’t tell if a block is applied your website unless someone using the mobile network notices and tells you. And it is incredibly hard to persuade the networks to switch the blocks off.

Applying this mess to fixed broadband would be very disruptive. Pervasive network filtering would be an extremely bad idea. Based on inspection of users traffic, and being highly scalable, it would offer governments new means to snoop on users, and gradate censorship regimes. Censorship could be voluntary (opt out) or compulsory. Politicians could press to move new categories of “undesirable” sites into these bands. Opting out of censorship could be discouraged by the stigma of your ISP knowing what you wished to access, be that pornography, terrorism or hate speech.

The motivations for network censorship are incredibly controlling and have little to do with protecting children. Some people are motivated by a dislike of adults accessing pornography, but cannot face the issue head on.

Some are acting for commercial reasons, like TalkTalk, who want us to use their expensive filtering system. Others may have darker ideas about introducing an infrastructure of control. But none of them have our best interests at heart, if we truly believe that we are best judges of the information we want to access and understand.

More information and take action

A version of this article was first published in Custom PC Issue 107 May 2012


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