Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Think of the children!

Well, it is in then news that the government want blocks on porn to protect children. We are talking legal content being blocked by ISPs, but obviously think of the children and clearly you don't want kids accessing porn? (I do have 5 kids)

Is there a problem to be solved anyway? i.e. does the fact that teenagers have seen porn actually affect them in later life in some detrimental way. I think the problem with answering that is finding any teenager than has not seen porn in order to compare. I am pretty sure younger children are not interested, but you want them not to find stuff by accident as they may find it confusing, distressing, or just icky. Thankfully safe search on the likes of Google already address this for most cases anyway. For older children, they will find a way past any blocking anyway.

The idea seems to be that some of the major ISPs will provide some degree of parental controls, perhaps at the network level. It seems from the ISPs that this is likely to be a free service they offer. Some ISPs already offer such services anyway, so why this is news is unclear, but it seems the big ISPs will be offering this. I say blocking at the network level, but actually the technicalities seem not to have been worked out.

Network level blocking for this is not a good idea technically - for a start, at the network level, there is no way to know who in a household is accessing the Internet. This means blocks will almost certainly be applicable to an entire household. That is going to cause all sorts of problems as the level of blocking that is wanted will be wildly different within a typical family. In practice, the best way to manage any parental controls is on the machines themselves, that is if you think technology is the solution anyway rather than good parenting, or simple policies like young kids only getting to use the Internet in supervised/communal areas.

Not just porn will be blocked, as there is already talk of blocking gambling sites and other adult content. This has all sorts of side effects - apart from the fact that the blocks may apply to an entire household, depending how it is done, the blocks may apply to sites that offer help on gay/lesbian/bi issues, and the like. This is a problem where teenagers do want advice and help without their parents knowing.

What about monitoring? One of the aspects of many existing parental control tools on the PC itself is they not only block, but monitor, allowing parents to see what has been accessed. Well, when you are talking a 5 year old, maybe that is completely acceptable, but what of when it is a 15 year old? or simply other adult members of the household?

Clear lines of responsibility should really be maintained here. An ISP is not responsible for blocking or monitoring the usage of their service - that is something that is well established in many countries and in the EU. ISPs choosing to offer an extra optional service is clearly sensible, but it is worrying that the government think this should be the ISPs responsibility in the first place. Parental controls are the responsibility of the parent not the ISPs, else we really are talking about a nanny state in the real sense.

Blocking is not going to work anyway. One of the key things is that, unless you start working white lists where only specific approved Internet access is allowed (approved list of web sites), no blocking will actually be effective. Parents will just get a false sense of security. Kids will use ssl, vpns and proxies. They do not need to be smart to do this, just type what their mates on facebook tell them to type.

So really, what is the point in all of this actually? It is not clear there is a problem to solve, and it is clear this will not solve the problem. It is all politics for the sake of it, and that is just depressing.

So, well done for large ISPs offering some options. Lets hope they are sensible in what they offer and that it does not have any of the nasty side effects. Personally I would rather see some good PC based tools and good education for parents on what they do, how to install them, and what the side effects are, and actually the ISP simply not involved in this.

Where do A&A stand? Well we have a clear policy - we provide a clean IP connection and we route packets. That is it. We don't monitor or restrict that traffic. When you sign up you are asked to confirm that you want a clean, uncensored, Internet connection. If you don't, then you want another ISP instead. You can, of course, install your own controls on your own machines, or simply talk to your kids and be a good parent rather than try to rely on technology...


  1. I profoundly agree with everything in this post.


  2. I'd suggest that far from not solving the problem, it actively makes it worse. If non-techie parents think that their ISP is "protecting their children" they'll be even less inclined to take action themselves / pay attention to what little Johnny is doing online.

    Censorship in the name of "protecting the children" should start and end in the home.

  3. 100% agreement from me too.

    PS: This is much more worthy of being the most viewed post of all time.

  4. I'm worried we're setting ourselves up with a society that allows anyone to set themselves up as arbiter of right and wrong.

    It's bad enough if the government wants to censor - but at least there's the illusion of accountability through the ballot box. Nobody voted for the IWF, or for whoever will run these blocks - and nobody is holding them accountable.

    I wish it would just start and end with the parents.. then for example I wouldn't have to enter a PIN to watch something off the cartoon network because it was broadcast after 8pm (allegedly Ofcom's fault).

  5. Of course if we compare this with the "Great Firewall of China" where the penalty for breaking out is likely to be higher than anything here... they still get out and it leaks like a sieve.

    Far better if they want to do this would be for HM Govt (or the militant wing of the Mothers' Union) to set up their own ISP with all this stuff guaranteed to be blocked etc and then to sell access to that ISP *at cost* - you can imagine what that'll be like based on every other government IT project - should run like treacle in January and cost a few quid per minute per subscriber to run.

    Then the 15.8 million households without children (out of 22 million) aren't affected and the 6 million remaining can make the commercial decision.

    As a parent, I'll carry on with the same approach that my parents did - monitor what my offspring get up to, have conversations about limits and impose sanctions if breached.

    Sad to think that the days of finding a jazz mag in the hedge on the way to school are passed though...

  6. "nobody is holding them accountable"

    Well, there's capitalism. If nobody buys services from ISPs who have decided they know what's best for us, then they'll change policy and/or go out of business. In theory.

  7. Familyshield by opendns does a pretty good job;

  8. Apologies to farnz fort this not posting under his name - stupid blogger...

    And, of course, there's the non-technical way to break the average ISP-level filter, if account holders can opt-out:

    1) Find a site blocked in error that's actually useful for homework.

    2) Pester parents until they get the filters lifted for this homework site.

    3) Hope parents forget to ask for the filters to be turned back on - or go back round the loop ad-infinitum.

    Remember that the average ISP-level filter will not have room to handle customer-level exceptions; it's all or nothing. And the chances of a big ISP having a fast review service for misclassified sites is approximately as likely as any of the MPs involved in the scheme admitting it's a stupid idea from a group of stupid people - there will be misclassified sites, and thus the filters can be socially engineered off.

  9. Perhaps all MPs should be subject to ISP filtering (in case their spouses download entertaining videos at the taxpayer's expense).

    I'm pretty sure this would end filtering in about 30 seconds.

  10. Unfortunately governments have a history of "solving" problems in a way that doesn't do so, but which inconveniences (or worse!) others.

    Their favourite scheme is to try to stop something illegal happening, by making it *more* illegal!

    I think we suffer from far too much government, and if they all had a couple of years off it would benefit the whole country greatly...

    Cheers, Howard
    (who thinks that anyone who wants to run the country should be banned from doing so)

  11. I suggest that you just confront them. Hope that helps.
    us vpn

  12. Thanks timmy, though that looks like an advert :-)
    What is interesting is the number of VPN services that are now emerging - administrated and hosted in multiple countries with policies on not even keeping records so that if they are legally compelled to provide them they have none to provide. It shows just how stupid a lot of this nanny state knee jerk government is.