Sunday, 16 June 2013

Should ISPs be doing more to block harmful content

"Maria Miller has blasted the UK’s top ISPs for taking a soft approach on censoring pornography and terrorist content. The culture secretary has reportedly called a meeting with representatives of BT, Sky, Facebook and Twitter in bid to force the companies to be more proactive in their blocking of harmful content."

Think of the children?

It is not clear exactly what the agenda is here. If this is just a matter of "think of the children" then clearly, as said by the culture secretary in September "keeping children safe online should be the responsibility of parents, not ISPs". There are already ways for parents to configure parental controls on their computers as well as free and paid applications and services that offer lots of control for parents. There is no problem to solve. ISPs are there to provide communications, to shift packets, not look at the content.

Nanny knows best?

So, we have to assume that the agenda is more "nanny state". The government thinking that British citizens are not mature enough to make their own decisions, and that the state has to protect us. I find that attitude somewhat insulting, personally.

I am assuming here that we are talking about legal content that is expressing extreme views somehow, as if it was actually illegal it should be taken down at source.

Let's burn books

What is "harmful content"? Information is information, and is not itself harmful. It is what you do with it that could make it harmful. Just because you do not like the information or the views of others, not matter how extreme, is really not a reason to start burning books.

There is also the question of what to block - what if this harmful content is expressing a religious view? Are we happy to ban religious or even political views being expressed?

Standing up to bullies

There are a lot of problems with all of this, but how exactly could the government force filtering on the major ISPs? It could be done using legislation or by bullying the larger players with the threat of legislation. I was always told to stand up to bullies.

No controls

If ISPs are bullied in to providing filtering themselves then we end up with a system that is totally uncontrolled. There is no recourse when a site is incorrectly blocked. There is no review, or oversight. This is bad.

The only good thing about not using legislation is that AAISP can continue to offer unfiltered Internet access to those that want it.

Changing the rules

For this to work at all, it has to be acceptable for someone to intercept the communications between two other parties without their consent. That is meant to be illegal. You also have to throw away the ideas of net neutrality if you allow ISPs to treat different information on The Internet differently, blocking some and allowing others, especially if this is not done by legislation.


The other problem is that blocking has side effects. It is one more complexity and one more thing to go wrong within an ISP network - there was a case where wikipedia access was seriously affected because of child abuse image blocking. But a far more serious issue is the mis-classification of web sites. This is something we already see with mobile operators that block "adult content" by default. Web site owners do not even know they are blocked, and when they work out what is happening they have no way to address the issue, get correctly classified, and get the block removed.

Blocking is ineffective

The other problem is that blocking is ineffective. This can easily be seen by the court ordered blocks on The Pirate Bay. There are web sites dedicated to listing the hundreds and hundreds of alternative names, proxies, and mirrors that exist to allow access to The Pirate Bay bypassing the blocks.

Blocking harmful content will not work - if someone wants content to be seen then it will be seen, and adding the tag of "what the government does not want you to know" just makes it more appealing.

Thin end of the wedge

Getting all ISPs to block any content, even content everyone agrees is bad, is the thin end of the wedge. It is easy to see how the blocks can extend to extreme political views, or just wrong thinking and how any government can get to that by small justifiable steps. But even without this level of paranoia, there is the risk that corporations can ask courts to add blocks as seen by The Pirate Bay orders.

Free speech

This biggest issue here is that we are considering another step to kill free speech. Free speech is a cornerstone of a free and democratic society, and the first to go in oppressive regimes. If we are considering state mandated censorship of The Internet then we are taking a big step and letting the terrorists win.

Have terrorists won already?

I wonder sometimes if they have already won. I was shocked to realise recently that when I go in to London, and take my big camera with me, I am not at all worried about being a victim of a terrorist attack, no, I am worried that I will have to argue with some policeman about my right to take pictures in a public place. Who is causing concern in that case? Who is causing terror? Who is the terrorist?

Doing the right thing

We should stand up for the freedoms we have fought hard to win and not change our ways at the whim of terrorists. Free speech means we see the good and the bad - we see the extremists but we also see the majority with the sane view and sensible counter arguments. I think we grown up enough to tell the difference without a nanny state watching our backs.


  1. In 2001 GWBush said "they hate our freedoms" -- and promptly did his best to dismantle same.

    I see here a combination of ignorant MPs and a dirigiste civil service (they were the ones pushing successive governments for an ID card scheme), both heavily influenced by vendors of hardware that promises technical solutions to social problems.

    Combine this with a world in which people still believe the Daily Mail when it talks about Scary Internet Porn (or indeed Scary Internet Extremists)...

  2. I spent 10 years with a rocket strapped to my arse prepared to fight and die in the name of Queen and Country for 'freedom' but it wasn't until I loaded RedHat4 that I finally realised that the real fight for freedom would be with our major corporations and the government.

    Just imagine, if you will, a world without Linux and other FOSS - where would we be - ALL media would be already be controlled by DRM and HMG would already have access to EVERYTHING.

    Thank you Adrian, Linus and the countless others who each make a contribution to keeping freedom alive.

  3. [saw from elsewhere that you might be talking to the media soon, I'm no expert but here's what I think, for what it's worth]

    I think it's dangerous to use shortcuts like "think of the children": we know what you mean, but it will alienate many people.

    What the media want is a one liner. The problem is that there is fine line between sounding 'on the defensive' and sounding like a nutcase. Explaining things, unfortunately, sounds defensive.
    A typical tactic seems to be to says something which conveys an assumption instead of explaining it.

    I guess you may be challenged on whether this should be the responsibility of ISPs. I think the answer is to say that parents should not be given a false sense of security that all porn will be filtered out, which is impossible. (This is an example of not explaining things: instead of starting by listing all the ways that filtering doesn't work, it starts with the conclusion).

    Best of luck!

  4. The Daily Mail campaigns against 'child porn' yet its web site has more porn per kilobyte than anything else I've accidentally stumbled across. Porn - definition; words and pictures that denigrate, humiliate, exploit and degrade human sexuality. This pretty much sums up the Daily Mail web site. For those who use Firefox I recommend Kitten Block 1.2 add on. This blocks any access to the Daily Mail and the Daily Express web sites showing you pictures of Tea and Kittens.

  5. Maybe ISP's should block access to online newspapers like the Daily Mail ;-) Wonder how quick they'd change their respective tunes then eh.

  6. Perhaps we could vote for sites to be blocked each month and they would "cease to exist". How would that go down with the "powers". All that would be left would be porn sites!