Tuesday, 3 April 2012

How hard can it be?

The Online Safety Bill says that ISPs have to filter pornographic content unless you say you want porn, and are over 18. It is not law yet.

I have been trying to come up with an analogy for how stupid this is.

The proponents think it is easy, and no different to controlling the content on television, or so it seems.

The best analogy I can come up with is that you are demanding people that sell glasses have to filter pornography being seen through them.

I think people realise that it would be stupid to say that, but this seems to be what the bill is, in effect, saying. ISPs provide access to the Internet. They are not providing the "content", just access to it. Asking the content providers to have age verification and filters would be possible, except they are not all in the UK. Asking the people that provide access to the Internet to block it is crazy.

ISPs have no way to tell what is and is not pornographic at the packet level.

Systems to block access to all pornographic images would be technicially impossible. Even the existing IWF filtering systems don't actually aim to block access, just stop people accidentally coming across certain web pages. But this bill calls for actually blocking all access.

I could email you and encrypted file that is a pornographic image, and there is no way the ISP or mail servers can tell. I only have to find one way around it to prove it is impossible, but there are many ways it will not work.

As an example, the ban on newzbin by a court order is not actually stopping access as it just blocks http not https, or indeed any number of other ways to access the site. The ban has, instead, created huge publicity for the site.

Porn sites will be no different. Yes, a few larger sites can be black-holed at an IP level, but that is not a total block or even close. Anyone with access to google will be able to search for ways around any blocks put in place. It is a waste of time. I suspect teenage boys will have access to google and some motivation to find porn.

It is however a huge costs for ISPs to do this.

It is also making people specifically tell their ISP that they want to access pornography. The ISP then has that sensitive personal information to handle and not leak. The ISP also gets to track all the attempts to access pornography now they have a system in place to block it or allow it based on subscriber preference.

Of course, the block is network level so affects a whole household. Even if the block was 100% effective, if the parents want access to pornography then the block will not stop the kids accessing it via the same Internet connection. So again, pointless.

A&A have asked people to confirm they want unfiltered Internet access as part of the sign up for some time. We have not (until now) asked people if they are over 18. Our service is unfiltered, and buying it is opting out of any filters. Sadly this means only those 18 and over will be able to buy our service if this law comes in to force.

Also, a subtle point in the bill, is that it requires all computing devices to have filters. This is filters generally, not just for pornographic. This is any device that connects to the Internet and can download content. So my TV, and my SIP phone, and so on. They all have means to download content. Indeed, most things these days have means to download content even if that is just to update their own software and they are not in any way a computer. This is a far reaching bill!


  1. I get the feeling they just want us to turn off the internet and not use it at all.

  2. For a second I thought I had missed something, but turns out it is its first reading with approval to print it.

    The filters look even more costly than the ISP level.

    Perhaps the way to do it is the have the filtered service actually be a whitelist system. With Google etc blocked as an ISP cannot control whether the browser user is using safe search in on/off or moderate level.

    What would go in the whitelist is difficult, as what is pornographic for one person is simply art for another.

    Can see a next step for parents, 'you are a bad parent as you opted for unfiltered internet in your home'.

  3. Presumably ISPs will also have to scan/filter VoIP traffic since that could have pornographic content.

    1. So Movies are OK? :-)

      Alsom some VOIP products support sending an image of the caller & video chat... :-)

  4. OK, so VoIP could contain fax data then...

  5. Every government has to slip in a few insane proposals so that the merely unaccceptable things look almost reasonable. The political science term is "moving the Overton window".

  6. Movies are just lots of images presented quickly, odd wording though as excludes written word, and audio.

  7. It also lacks any exception for business subscribers. I bet many of my business customers are under 18. After all, we are only 15.

  8. Don't waste time getting hot under the collar about this. It appears to be a private member's bill introduced into the House of Lords, so it is very unlikely that it would be passed. It will give a few of the noble lords an opportunity to make a fool of themselves and let off steam, but that's all. Start fretting when the home office starts talking about similar legislation.

    1. Indeed - if anything it simply shows the stupidity of those in power that they even think this is a vaguely sane proposal.

      I am also puzzled that it lacks any enforcement measures.

    2. But if one consigns this to the too daft to ever happen bin, then one day you suddenly find it quietly on the statute books.

  9. Well, the good Baroness Howe is not exactly "in power". She is a cross-bencher and the nearest she is to power is as wife of the one-time Geoffrey Howe. In a way it is surprising that she is sponsoring such a bill, since she has a fairly liberal record if what is said at http://www.theyworkforyou.com/peer/baroness_howe_of_idlicote is accurate - for example she was strongly against id cards.

    1. OTOH she was the chair of the Broadcasting Standards Council then the Broadcasting Standards Commission in the '90s, so this sort of thing is old hat for her.

      And while Howe's unwhipped, the Bill follows the work of Tory MP Claire Perry. It's not the product of an independent (in the political sense) mind.

  10. I'm sure if your glasses analogy was technically possible the government would do it. It never ceases to amaze me what they are willing to do under the auspices of {anti-terror, think of the children, emotional issue n} and with a hackneyed "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" catch-all retort.

    Really, I find it bizarre that there is such an obsession with hiding and censoring sexuality; it doesn't hurt other people (exceptions, as always), is natural and extremely commonplace. Yet strong violence makes it into a 12A film without anyone batting an eyelid; 'harmful' acts that are exactly contrary to those for sexuality. Frankly, even 'violence' in films doesn't seem to do any harm to those who aren't already severely mentally unstable.

    I realise there are implications for everything that a particular child might see, but it seems absolutely absurd in the grand scheme of things, in addition to (presumably) providing a 'perv watch-list' for digestion by the authorities at some point.

    I'm pretty sure 'parenting' should be doing this job :). Anyway, as you point out, it is trivially circumventable by anyone with a basic ability to operate a browser and keyboard.

    Oh and a congratulation is due for your punnery: "How hard can it be" ... "pornographic content". Oh er! Very good, very good :o).

    1. OK, I have to 'fes up to this - I really did not think of the "how *hard* can it be?" angle on this. And this is from someone that did see porn before the age of 18, so I am not that "damaged" by it...

  11. Of course, if inadvertent access to pornography was perceived as a "real" problem, and filtering at router level would fix it at a reasonable expense, there would be routers on the market that did it already.

    I can't find them on PC World's web site, suggesting that they're not a mass market product. I therefore have to ask; is this actually a problem? If so, can filters actually fix it? I know that the products needed exist, as you can get WebSense integrated with Juniper and Cisco routers, so why aren't they available at consumer pricing? Is it a lack of demand? Are modern parents clued up enough to supervise their children, thus avoiding the problem? Or is there deep demand for it, and thus a market niche for someone to fill?

  12. "unless you say you want porn, and are over 18"

    Two step solution;

    1.Require all customers to be over 18.
    2. Offer the standard "unfiltered service" and a "filtered service". Standard unfiltered service states in terms that this includes porn, and everything else. Filtered service could just be, for example, web access only (via proxy) to a list of 100 popular safe websites, like, bbc, google. And HTTPS access is blocked, so forget online banking.

    If you want to have a bank, you must want the unfiltered service.

  13. Play along and price it up.

    One employee can probably monitor 3 households of users. Business premises would need more, maybe one snooper per 5-10 users. You'll need to install snooping software at the user end to view https traffic, but that's OK. It might actually be easier to install a couple of cameras in each room in the country (so that no corners are missed) than snoop on every PC individually.

    Mobile phones would have to have to have user-end snooping, mobile camera teams could clock up too much mileage.

    Presumably the Gov will pay for the extra employees around the clock and for piping the data to you regional monitoring centres, as well as the setup costs. I can see it being put into practice for less than £400 per person per day, when done on an economic scale. Not everyone has access to the internet, so it's probably only 40 Million people that need round the clock monitoring.
    With a bit of thought, you could do audio recordings of all conversations of the population too using the snooping software. That would be very handy, so you could offer it as an extra product for the Gov. I don't think anyone would mind, surely? It would be great for feedback on spin.

    Anyone who opts out or is under 18 would get no "internet" but DNS only. That way, only the kids can tunnel IP-over-DNS. Oh, wait. Err....hangon

  14. It doesn't say that you have to block all porn. Just block one porn image and you've done the job.