Sunday, 20 November 2016

First they came for the porn sites

If it was not bad enough with the Investigatory Powers Act passing in to law, we are now facing another wave of stupid and dangerous law - the Digital Economy Bill.

Several people have written some good pieces on that - see one of the latest by Jim Killock of Open Rights Group.

What problem are they trying to address?

"THINK OF THE CHILDREN!"

Seriously, it is not clear what the specific problem is here - but the Government have been after porn sites for a long time. Those of us that are cynical see this as just one more step in censoring the Internet, one small justification for more filters and laws to back them, so that more and more can later be added to the filtering lists over time.

I will be delighted if someone reading this has some concrete evidence of studies showing what problem exists to be solved. Are there any MPs that did not see porn before 18 (or a pig's head maybe?).

Personally I see two issues, the first is younger children inadvertently encountering unsavoury content on the Internet. This is easy to address with existing tools and some education of parents. The second is older children that want to access porn on the Internet but are not yet 18 (e.g. people that are 16, can fight in the army, and can get married and have sex, those sort of people as well as those a few years younger). This is not a "problem" to solve - teenage kids have accessed porn, probably forever, and long before the Internet. The only problem is where they see porn as "reality" rather than "entertainment and fiction", and that is solved by education. No amount of blocking will ever stop a teenage kid accessing porn if they want to and that is a simple fact!

What is the solution they propose?

There are two key parts here, both of which have huge issues.

1. Age verification on porn sites. Unlike whisky selling web sites that have "Are you over 18? Yes/No", they mean something that can actually validate that you are over 18.

This is serious - a lot of people (adults) access porn. It is not unusual. However, the fact that people access porn, and the specific preferences for people's fantasies is very personal information - sensitive personal information which is valuable to criminals, may be very embarrassing, and usable for blackmail and who knows what else. Remember, until surprisingly recently a preference for same sex relationships would make you a criminal suspect! If anything, it is one's sexual preferences that are perhaps one of the main reasons for the basic human right to a private life.

The only real way to do any sort of age verification is to identify the user somehow. This is a huge challenge to do "over the Internet". Almost anything that can be used to identify a person can be copied and used by their teenage kid - and something like a credit card is one of the easiest. Also, bear in mind, kids as young as 8 can legitimately get a pre-payment visa/mastercard now.

No matter how you try - the system will be flawed somehow (what can an adult type or do on a computer that a child cannot copy?).

But no matter what you try - there will be an association of the web site access with the identity of the person accessing it. Steps can be taken to try and avoid this linking together cleanly by some means, but ultimately there will be a link somewhere, and that allows for a huge database of sexual preferences for adults in the UK. That will get hacked or sold or both.

We are talking about a database of the sexual preferences of every UK adult! But I suppose the Investigatory Powers Act allows such a database to be created as well - at least tied to an Internet connection if not a person. This database will tie to specific people.

2. Blocking of porn sites. Only UK sites would have to comply (putting them at a commercial disadvantage and hampering minority groups), so they propose that sites that do not comply can be blocked by an order on UK ISPs.

There is plenty of evidence that trying to block illegal sites that assist in copyright infringement in some way simply does not work. It is a massive game of "whack-a-mole" at best, and totally pointless at worst. This has been tried, and it simply does not work.

But trying to censor completely legitimate and legal web sites, which have financial and legal resources, is going to be a much bigger challenge. For a start, there are a lot of them, a hell of a lot. We are not talking of blocking one web site like piratebay, we are talking every single non UK porn web site that is not going to pay for UK age verification services - they would be much more successful investing in ways for UK "users" to bypass government censorship.

But as Jim Killock points out - the second "age verification" becomes the "norm" for UK porn "users", we see massive opportunity for fraud - porn sites that insist you have to enter card details to proceed and even quoting the UK law on this. Quote a law and link to it and the request seems legitimate. If all of the free sites vanish (unless you try a little to find them), then we will be swamped by the bogus sites collecting personal information. And there is almost no end to how much personal information they can ask for in the interests of "age verification" and a promise not to actually charge your card or log the details. There is no way for people to tell the "real" (and supposedly safe) age verification requests from the bogus ones, and there is a massive incentive for people that are defrauded to keep quiet rather than own up to the site they were trying to access. It will be a secret and undercover fraud that will be a nightmare to track down.

What is the right answer?

You have to assume there is a question/problem in the first place, which is not clear, but assuming there is one - what is the answer.

I think it is simple to say - education is the answer, not censorship.

But I'll try and be a tad more helpful.

For young children you need education of parents and guardians on how to use the many tools available to them, and some education that the Internet is not the ultimate baby sitter. There are many tools - just installing any operating system these days will offer a range of "parental controls". There are safe-search settings on search engines and there are controls that can be set in most ISPs systems that offer filtering as an option. ISP filters tend to be whole house and so a tad crude but there are DNS based systems which are easier to set on a per computer basis and provide controls not only on content but times of day, etc. Lots of tools exist, in the control of the parent/guardian. Yes, they are easy for some teenage kid to bypass, but we are talking here of young children not trying to access porn, and for that all of these tools work well.

For older children that want to assess porn the first thing to realise is that there really is no point trying to stop them doing so - it will never work, sorry. But education matters. Along with sex education you need education for teenagers about porn! I know it seems odd, but teenagers need to know porn exists, and that every type of porn and sexual preference you can imagine (and many you cannot) exist somewhere. They need to now that porn is entertainment and not reality. That it is fiction. That there are many things out there, with which they may feel uncomfortable, and that they have the choice of what they look at and what they do not. And that most of all they need to understand that it is not in any way a guide to any real relationship, just as many fictional and entertainment films are not a guide to real life. With some basic education people can enjoy porn, avoid things they do not enjoy, and still have meaningful sexual relationships in the real world.

22 comments:

  1. Disclaimer: I run Opendium, we are a web filter supplier for schools across the UK.

    I think there is merit in filtering, but you need to understand the problem you're trying to solve and the limitations of the filters. The idea that you can block access to all porn was a fantasy held by schools 10-15 years ago; these days schools and government have accepted that this isn't possible and whilst filtering is still important for them, no one is under any illusion - if someone wants to get to porn, they will do, and you need staff to intervene and educate rather than being hands-off and relying entirely on the filter.

    Lessons from the school experience can be learnt when taking this to the home environment - a filter will stop people from accidentally stumbling across porn, but it won't stop people from seeing it if they really want to. So parents have to be involved in this - if the kids are trying to look at porn, the parents should be alerted so that they can educate and discipline their children. No one should be expecting filtering to do anything worthwhile on its own - you've got to involve the parents.

    Importantly, "education" in this context doesn't mean convincing the child that "porn is bad", it's about giving parents the opportunity to put what their kids are finding on the internet into context. And none of this is exclusive to porn - the same applies to violence, gambling, drug abuse, etc. Spotting patterns in internet activity can also help responsible adults to intervene when children are at risk of self harming, abuse, committing crime, etc.

    There is also a really big difference between the state snooping on adults / censoring their connections, and allowing parents / responsible adults to do the same to their children. Adults are supposed to be able to look after themselves and make their own decisions, children are expected to need adult guidance.

    I'd also argue that 18 is way too old as a minimum age of someone viewing porn on a home internet connection - very clearly the approach taken needs to change based on age. It is completely reasonable to want to prevent an 8 year old stumbling across porn. It's probably not reasonable to expect 13-15 year old kids to never see porn, but educating them about what they are seeing is sensible. Its really not unreasonable for 16-17 year olds to be using porn, given that a reasonable number of them will be sexually active anyway.

    So I'm not going to write off some kind of filtering on home internet connections/3G/etc entirely. I certainly see value. However, the government's approach is completely wrong and won't do anything to help empower parents. And if filter operators (who may be the ISPs themselves, cloud services or CPE suppliers) are going to engage with parents in a proactive way, you certainly don't need filters to be turned on by default, which means no need to store a list of people who have "opted in" to watching porn.

    There's also the problem that a lot of families have a single computer used by the adults (who may legitimately want to enjoy porn) and a number of children of varying ages, so it's unclear how to accommodate them all with a single set of filtering settings.

    Other problems are that a lot of parents just aren't at all educated about this stuff - unclear what can be done about this; free courses/information can be made available but a lot of parents will ignore it.

    The responses from parents who are given "your kids are looking at porn" notifications are also going to vary widely, and whilst I am opposed to the state interfering with parenting, its clear that flying off the handle because your 17 year old has seen some boobies is probably not going to be terribly productive.

    Lots of tricky problems, but the approach the government is taking seems dangerous for the consumers and can only end up with the off-shoring of the UK porn industry to avoid ridiculous laws.

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  2. There are clear challenges and risk associated with the #DEBill's proposed approach.

    However — and what was driving my question earlier today on Twitter — was that I suspect that, to have meaningful influence, those objecting actively will need to be able to proffer some form of cheap, easy and reliable technical solution to the perceived problem, over and above saying "education".

    At the moment, we voluntarily filter our web browsing, through squid. We do that to strip out adverts and other trackers, and it improves the browsing experience massively. It would be straightforward to add a filter to apply some third party list of "porn" sites, but installing, configuring and running squid would not be seen as a viable solution.

    OpenDNS seemed to be quite well regarded, and perhaps promoting that as a viable technical solution is the way forward?

    I did like the idea of a "home filter box", which parents could buy and add to their LAN (and presumably make a tweak to their router's configuration to pass traffic through it). But unless ISPs gave one out with their connections, or it becomes a functionality of supplied routers, I suspect that the cost would be seen as undesirable (and so pressure would be placed on ISPs to fund them).

    A couple of things about the "it's nothing new" argument strike me, though:

    First, the *ease of access* has increased. Yes, porn has been discoverable for years, whether through a newsagent / video shop willing to overlook age restrictions, or finding a magazine lying around somewhere. But the former requires a degree of confidence (and money), and the second luck. Simply logging on and typing "porn" into Google eliminates those barriers to access.

    Second, the *range of material* available has, as far as I know, increased dramatically. Images passed round when I was at school were low res photographs, depicting vanilla sex (or else mere nudity).

    Logging on to pornhub, and probably others, one is presented with a smorgasbord of options, from vanilla to decidedly less so. What would once have been considered extreme is now readily available. Perhaps the breaking down of taboos, and increased acceptance of different preferences and behaviours, or encouragement of experimentation, is a good — but should, say, BDSM content, be available to 13 and 14 year olds?

    I do not favour the age verification scheme. I do not like the idea of executive, non-judicial decisions compelling ISPs to block on pain of criminal offence. And I certainly favour education, assuming it is done in a neutral manner by an informed individual, rather than proselytism, although I do wonder just how many are comfortable talking opening about porn and other issues — perhaps those most likely to object to the type of schemes proposed are those most likely to be comfortable talking about the issues? But I do think that there still needs to be a convenient, easy and probably free technical solution available, if this type of argument is to prevail.

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    1. For reference, I believe the large ISPs already provide blocking services, and have had to since 2013. They can be deactivated at the request of the customer.

      See:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_blocking_in_the_United_Kingdom#ISP_Default_network_blocking

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  3. Oh yes, I've also never understood why boobies apparently must never be seen by children, but warfare and violence is somehow ok. Looking at the BBFC guidelines:

    PG: Sexual activity may be implied, innuendo only. Violence may be mild - moderate but without detail.

    12/12A: Sex scenes must be brief and discreet. Violence may be moderate, occasionally gory.

    15: Sex allowed, but no detail, must not be arousing. Strong violence allowed, may be gory.

    To my mind, the threshold for what sexual activity is allowed seems to be considerably lower than what violence is allowed, given that sex amongst adults is a normal accepted thing whilst violence is not...

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    1. Quite.

      Although I did read an interesting journal article a couple of years back, arguing that all porn is violence towards women. I can't remember if or how it dealt with gay male porn.

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    2. LOL, there is porn for every interest and certainly some meeting that definition but by no means all porn.

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    3. Neil: That line of argument makes absolutely no sense to me...

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    4. I am sceptical, but I found it an interesting perspective all the same. I've located it - page 30 onwards of http://www.southampton.ac.uk/assets/imported/transforms/content-block/UsefulDownloads_Download/68E47B750BD7486D98077B769C4A8C2C/sslr_vol_4_issue_1.pdf

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    5. Only had chance to read the first few pages of that section so far, but my initial impression is that:
      1. it appears to be focussed on pornography that portrays violence towards women. Surely this type of porn is in the extreme minority?
      2. the supporting arguments seem to be along the lines of "a woman was murdered, the murderer was found to be in possession of violent porn so it should be banned". I'm sure you could draw similarities between other crimes - i.e. I imagine a lot people found guilty of gun crime are probably in possession of media regarding guns; drug crime : media about drugs, etc. I think this misses the point that there are a few people who are off their rocker and may be set off by any "negative" imagery, but it isn't reasonable to prevent the whole public from seeing things which the state may consider "negative" just because there are handful of unstable people.
      3. There's also no evidence that these crimes wouldn't still be committed even if the material wasn't available. In fact there is the argument that the people who get off on this stuff are less likely to commit a crime if they can "relieve themselves" by watching a video instead of going out and actually doing it. This argument applies to child porn, for example - anything that depicts children in a sexual way is banned, *even if they aren't real children* (e.g. cartoons). As far as I am aware, there is no evidence to suggest that the availability of such material increases the harm to real children, whilst it can be argued that there is no need for someone to abuse a real child if they can get their kicks from watching some cartoon porn.
      4. Finally, the "public outcry" argument was used, which is of course fuelled by a media that actively tries to create public outcry because it sells papers. That certainly isn't taking a balanced look at the evidence.

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    6. > certainly isn't taking a balanced look at the evidence

      I have to admit I assumed that that was going to the case from the title! "An Anti-Pornography Feminist Perspective"

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  4. The government is going to have trouble defining porn.

    Is reddit porn? Parts of it certainly are, parts are borderline.
    Twitter?
    Youtube?
    Google Search?

    Unless they're planning on blocking parts of sites based on URLs (trivial to change constantly) or actually scanning content to make a decision in real time, they're going to end up with something that allows most porn through or something that blocks loads of legitimate stuff.

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    1. Google search has to be the most obvious problem with cached images and http by default so no way to block parts of google really.

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    2. You can google force safe search to be turned on without cracking the HTTPS sessions. Of course safesearch is also not completely accurate - it isn't terribly hard to find porn even with safesearch turned on.

      Google does have the problem that they host a lot of stuff under the same domain, so it is often difficult to block specific google services without blocking the whole lot. e.g. From what I recall, Google's YouTube Android app talks to googleapis.com instead of youtube.com, as do a lot of other google services.

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  5. IMHVO, Filtering of legal, consensual porn material should be done at the edge device. In other words, the problem of the premises where an internet connection terminates.

    It is not up to HMG to play nanny.

    This is worse than Mary Whitehouse. Porn has been around for ever, albeit in the form of grumble mags in the 70s and 80s, and it's not going away.

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    1. My feeling would be definitely "under subscriber control", but I would leave it down to the subscriber to determine where best to do it for their needs.

      For example, I don't have a problem with an ISP offering "filtering as a service", if users would find it a convenient way to control their own access (e.g. perhaps harder to do otherwise on a mobile device?), but I struggle more with imposed or "default-on" filtering, or filtering without granularity of control for subscribers.

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    2. I would note that the current government's campaign to censor the web comes shortly after TalkTalk found that their (expensive) filters on their consumer connections weren't a huge selling point.

      Given that TalkTalk is one of the cheaper consumer providers, I conclude that people are more bothered about things other than "can my kids access porn?", as if that was a high priority, people would have switched from BT et al to TT in droves.

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  6. The right answer is do nothing leave as is, I don't have children and if i did they would not be glued to a PC or unbilicled up to a mobile smart phone

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  7. Adrian: Are you as an ISP permitted to inform your customers as/when and what archival and monitoring systems you put in place under these new laws?

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  8. I had prepped another comment but (ironically) Google wouldn't permit it because of VPN & 2FA nonsense :)

    Anyway when you can get a VPN from a Panamanian company (try serving a court order) run by people in Europe for under $4/month which will max out an 80/20 FTTC line then what?

    Not advertising here but I've been testing one & apart from Netflix/Google everything works - can get 50/20 out of Iceland.

    This is the price of a bus journey in Leicester!

    Ban VPNs/encryption? Ban everything?

    I used to think Blair was bad but the catastrophic idiots in charge on both sides of the pond beggars belief.

    Posting "in the clear" :P

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  9. The bbc are a biased and anti democratic Eu Shil of a company broadcasting misinformation and propaganda
    It's also a place for many crooked MP to retire to, maybe the time has come for them to fund themselves stop the tv tax

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  10. This is basically the religious right of the Conservative Party flexing their censorious muscles. Sadly liberalism has gone out of fashion and populist authoritarianism is back in fashion.

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  11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDsWemk16D0

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