The great UK #government #internet porn filter con – what you are REALLY signing up to

intcenThe UK government have made quite a fuss about internet service providers giving their customers the choice to ‘opt-in’ or ‘opt-out’ of automatically filtering content from their home computers.

If we listen to the propaganda, we could think that these ‘filters’ are only concerned with pornographic material (of course the government jumped on the bandwagon of child pornography – which in reality hardly exists on the ‘normal’ internet that 99% of us have access to).

When we take a closer look at the proposals, we are being fooled into accepting back-door censorship of material that challenges government agendas and corruption. After the total wipe-out failure of the government’s Data Communications Bill, which would have given the government unprecedented powers of censorship and control, they are trying a new tactic.

Before you opt-in to any kind of filtering instigated by the government, you should know exactly what you are opting in to and make an informed choice – not just accept the defaults. We know the government is very fond of getting stealth legislation passed, with the majority of the public being totally unaware of the full implications – the same applies here.

First of all – the government initiated ‘filtering’ will include:

  • Pornographic material
  • ‘Extremist and terrorist related material’ – whatever that means.
  • Violent material
  • Anorexia and eating disorder websites
  • Suicide related websites
  • Sites containing content related to alcohol and tobacco
  • Web forums
  • Esoteric material
  • Alternative software sites – such as web security and blocking circumvention tools
  • Political blogs
  • Other sites the government deem to be unfit

The definitions for many of the ‘categories’ of material the government want blocked are vague. For example, there is no definition for ‘extremist and terrorist material’, so it could include information sites concerned with challenging the government – as with political blogs. It could also include genuine activist websites which challenge things like fracking, welfare reform, and so on.

‘Esoteric material’ could include any site which contains material relating to alternative views of the world, natural remedies, alternative lifestyles, and so on.

In effect, the government will instruct internet service providers to block anything they want under the guise of the site falling within the very open and far reaching categories they are proposing.

By using the argument for blocking pornographic content (and who could argue with such a seemingly noble gesture) the government has stealthily expanded their category list which many members of the general public will be unaware of when they click the ‘opt-in’ button.

Despite what the government are trying to make us believe, internet content filtering is not accurate and is much more complex than merely blocking access to a particular website.

Existing content filtering developers are continually trying to make filtering more appropriate and accurate, and their software often blocks legitimate websites, such as websites which provide support and information related to sexual health, church and religious websites, wine vendors, and many others.

In addition to the obvious problems with the government’s censorship of the last bastion of free speech, there are practical problems.

The Guardian has a good article highlighting twelve reasons why the filters won’t be effective and illustrate some interesting points:

1. It’s impossible to filter just what you want to

There is a tradeoff between failing to block inappropriate content and erroneously blocking harmless material which is educational, medical or artistic. A 2007 paper by the University of California, Berkeley, tested 15 combinations of internet content filters and filter settings. The most restrictive of those filters managed to block 91% of adult content – but it also mistakenly blocked 23% of “clean” webpages. The less restrictive filters had fewer errors but only managed to restrict access to 40% of material which was deemed inappropriate for children.

2. Filters can’t cope with context and nuance

Filters that fail to distinguish between pornography and sites that provide advice on sexual health, sexuality and relationships could actually do more harm than good. ONS stats released on Thursday say 43% of people aged over 16 use the internet to seek health-related information – that figure has more than doubled since 2007 and will probably continue to rise.

3. You can’t be clear about what you filter

It’s virtually impossible to be transparent about internet filtering. There are 4.2m pornographic websites and 68m search engine requests to find those websites every day according to Internet Filter Review. Their statistics are likely to be guesstimates but they do show the sheer scale of a big chunk of our online world. Would the government publish a searchable database of every banned site? Would that list be updated regularly? With explanations about why each site was blocked? Probably not. That poses big problems for democratic principles such as oversight and accountability, especially when it’s not clear why a site has been blocked. As the Internet Policy Review points out: “HTTP error codes are used by some filtering regimes. These are commonly either a 404 (‘file not found’) or 403 (‘access denied’) code.” Those messages can mean very different things to an internet user.

4. It’s not as simple as blocking a website

As well as performance issues, questions have been raised about the scope of internet filters. Some types of filters are unable to block material exchanged through peer-to-peer networks such as instant messaging, streaming video or file-sharing programs.

5. Many children are more tech savvy than their parents

Children will simply change the settings. This is a criticism that Cameron may have pre-empted but did not necessarily address when he stated: “It should not be the case that technically literate children can just flick the filters off at the click of a mouse without anyone knowing … those filters can only be changed by the account holder, who has to be an adult.” A US panel officially mandated by the Child Online Protection Act argued: “A child can simply guess the override security word/number set by a parent to switch a filter off for adult use (how many parents set their password to their birth date or license plate number).” Crudely put, a filter has to be simple enough for technologically feeble adults but difficult enough to stop a tech-savvy 17-year-old working out how to bypass it. Arguably, no such filter exists.

6. There will always be ways round

Proxy servers can be used to bypass the filters. And there are countless tutorials online about how to use these servers. Attempts to block search results for “how do I bypass the filter?” would also need to block search results for “how can I see search results for the question how do I bypass the filter?”.

7. For parents it may provide a dangerous illusion of safety

Filters could send the wrong message to parents that their children are unable to access inappropriate content online. Adults would have a false impression of security and fail to take steps to inform their children about online risks.

8. Filtering at router-level is inflexible

The proposals are unworkable because they are not device specific. A household may want one level of internet filtering for its shared computer, and another entirely for its mobile phones.

9. It sets a precedent for restricting legal content

Some of the content which Cameron proposes to filter is legal. Campaigners such as the Open Rights Group believe that excluding legal material online amounts to censorship and that it sets a dangerous precedent for other groups in the UK (and other governments abroad) who have an interest in suppressing information. Some specific cases illustrate the point well. The Clinton administration might have appreciated mandatory pornography filters at the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, for example.

10. It’s not cost effective

High-profile technology advisers such as the Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales have claimed that the plans are a “ridiculous idea” because they waste money that would be better spent on bolstering police resources to deal with online crime. Even the 2008 report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority admitted in its conclusion that it had not been able to “consider the balance of costs and benefits” associated with implementing filters.

11. It hasn’t happened yet

We’ve been here before. Cameron “unveiled” almost identical plans in October 2011. That would suggest at best that these plans are difficult to implement and at worst that they are distraction policies, designed to deflect attention from more detrimental news items. Cynics will be quick to point out that the plans were unveiled the same day that a group of MPs released a report saying that official migration statistics were dangerously inaccurate and “could be out by tens of thousands”. It was also the day that the “go home” poster campaign designed to target illegal immigrants attracted criticism.

12. And finally it’s a gimmick rather than a solution

Internet filters obscure the real debate about the psychological, social and physical effects of online porn.

The fact is that Cameron’s proposals are nothing more than a political exercise to censor any content which could criticise the government or spurn people into taking any action against government agendas and corruption. Together with press regulation, the government are desperate to control all sources of information the public have access to. If it sounds like George Orwell’s 1984 it is because it is!

As we have covered in other posts, there are already plenty of things parents can do which are really easy and much more effective if they want to control their children’s access to internet content.

You should be very concerned that you are being purposely manipulated by those who are elected to represent you so they can protect themselves from public scrutiny – very concerned indeed.

Follow @martynjsymons

Feel free to leave your comments below. Comments have to be approved – but we don’t censor alternative opinions and information – we just don’t like spam.

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4 thoughts on “The great UK #government #internet porn filter con – what you are REALLY signing up to

  1. um no that not true this show you have no idea how filters work when you click opt in your be given the list of whats block and you can unclick them and unblock them and also that list you have has things that are not on the real block list i have seen from sky and and other ISPs like Web forums, Esoteric material, Political blogs (you made that one up)
    am against any censorship but I hate all this misinformation going around

    ( PS the Data Communications Bill would of been more like
    CISPA and would not of censors anything)

  2. Thanks for your reply justtohuman.

    Unfortunately our information is accurate – which is the problem. The government proposals are very specific and go much further than the filters that are currently used by ISPs – that is why there are a lot of organisations against this ‘stealth’ censorship and the government misinformation being given to the public.

      • No – you did not sound rude – you had an honest opinion which is a good thing.

        It was interesting reading the article in PCPro, and it shows the problems with the filtering system at the network level. We would not like to use it to protect our children, and use much more effective machine level systems.

        The last paragraph in the article says it all, and is why we don’t like the government trying to fool people into a false sense of security for their own political reasons. They should use education not censorship in our (and many others) opinion.

        The paragraph is “”Sky’s Broadband Shield, alongside other measures, might offer some protection, but the Prime Minister’s daft promise that children will be “safe” after parents switch on these government-sought filters has never looked more foolish.”

        We hope to educate people not to be fooled by false information and promises. Thank you for your contribution, which raised important issues.

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