Censoring the Internet

"Something must be done" is the cry we hear, with primarily the likes of Daily Mail readers demanding that something be done to stop kids getting access to porn on the Internet.

There are, as I have previously blogged, a lot of issues here - it is not a simple matter (as some in the government seem to think) of ISPs blocking smut. I have re-listed a few of the issues at the end of this post. Importantly it is not a matter of "doing something is better than doing nothing" as there are many down sides to even simple filtering.

Larger ISPs are offering some filtering solutions, and well done to them for trying. If there really is public demand for such services then they will do well. The government has said they want small ISPs to follow suit. Well, AAISP have no intention of doing so, sorry. But we are getting a chance to help with the debate at last. ISPA have managed to get the ear of a few MPs and I was lucky enough to be involved in the meeting (aka dinner). It was interesting, and important to try and explain some of the issues to even a few MPs.

The political problem is the cries for "something must be done", and if nothing is done then something bad will happen some how. That seems to be how these things work. So addressing the public concern is what they need. Arguments about whether there is actually an issue to solve apparently don't help, i.e. kids have always managed to get access to porn, and still managed to grow up to become normal people, even MPs. Arguments that ISPs are "mere conduit" seem not to help either.

One concern is that the MPs see "the industry" as needing to do something, but sort of lump together the ISPs, hosting companies, software developers, content providers and search engines all together as "the industry". ISPs understandably say "we just pass packets" and "were are mere conduit". There is a lot that can be done at the PC level, and Windows have done a lot to make parental controls easy. There is a lot that can be done by the content providers (needing some international co-operation) to help ensure kids do not access content. There is a lot that can be done by search engines. It may be that these things are "good enough" and ISPs do not have to worry, but it seems we may have to have some "answer" to the issue somehow.

It did seem that the idea of ISPs like AAISP saying "we don't filter" was not seen as an issue. One comment is that it would mean we lose business to the ISPs offering filtering but several of us quickly corrected that view explaining that people come to us because we don't filter. As I said, I am very keen to ensure it is clear what we do and do not offer at sign up.

One idea is that this basically an education issue - we should be doing more to educate parents on the perils of the Internet and the options they already have. Smut is just one small aspect of the issues that can arise, and, in my opinion, far from the most serious of issues which include bullying and grooming and all sorts via social media. Even the increased peer pressure kids now face as part of the facebook generation is an issue. The idea of more prime time TV soaps covering stories involving such issues was suggested, and I suppose that is one of the ways to educate large parts of the adult population.

This is not quite "government talking to small ISPs", it is a few of the more clued up MPs talking to ISPA, but that is a huge start. I intend to try and continue such discussions if possible and help educate the MPs on the issues and work to come to some answer to their concerns.

One important suggestion from the MPs was that ISPA members should invite their local MP to discuss the issues, and maybe visit and see how an ISP works. This would get more MPs to understand the issues. We may have to try that.

A few of the issues:-
  • Filters need to be tailored to the users, as filters appropriate for a 6 year old are different to those for a 16 year old (who could be married with kids!), or an adult. This is not something that is viable "in the network" (which is what is being called for) as an ISP cannot tell who is at a computer in a home.
  • Filtering by default creates a stigma around people then having to ask for the filters to be removed, and creates a list of people who have so asked. But removing the filtering opens the whole home to the smut (see above).
  • All ISPs doing filtering (as seems to be wanted) creates a framework for national censorship of the Internet, and it is done with no control, visibility and oversight. Even now for IWF filtering (which is not mandatory) the lists are secret (even from the ISPs staff that implement the filtering). Secret censorship of all Internet in the country is bad, and we already see calls to extend beyond legal porn to "esoteric web sites" and other vague categories. This sort of filtering also has human rights issues as it is blocking freedom of expression and communication. You can be sure that once filtering is in place, the "filtering off" option will still have some filtering as the tools will exist.
  • Filtering can (and does) undermine the integrity and reliability of the network. It creates more ways for things to break. We need more reliable networks not less.
  • Filtering is going to be ineffective. You have to filter all types of VPN and proxy to be sure, and that then stops lots of very legitimate uses. As one MP said, they VPN in to the parliament network, but to ensure people cannot access porn you have to block all VPNs. Indeed, you would have to block all encrypted traffic and hence stop access to banks. If you don't porn sites will simply switch to using https.
  • Filtering will overblock (not just VPNs) but will block web sites that are not within the criteria, largely because of automated categorisation of sites. There is unlikely to be legislation on this, so no formal process to get incorrect blocks removed in a timely fashion, or compensation for such blocks. This is a big issue on mobile networks that routinely have filtering already.
  • Filtering will not be effective - whatever technology is used will still allow loopholes. It will, however, create a false sense of security and leave parents happy to allow unsupervised Internet access when they might not have without filtering. Even in environments such as schools where the pupils can't really complain about over blocking, the people running such filters have to block new things every day where pupils have found new sites. We see from piratebay filtering, which targets just one web site rather than "all smut", how easily people get around the blocks. Indeed, one view is that adults wanting access to porn and not wanting to talk to their ISP will get help from their teenage kids to get around the filters!
  • As an ISP with no blocks, it will be costly to add any sort of sensible filtering, not just in technology but all of the maintenance and support staff for such a system. As soon as we have filtering technology we can easily find we also have to filter other stuff based on civil court orders.


  1. I had an chance to test out how good Virgin Media's implementation of the IWF's filter was a few years ago when the IWF blocked an image on Wikipedia (which has since been unblocked). Suffice to say I found 4 ways around the filter, and that doesn't include using a VPN. One of those ways was a simple URL change (which I won't say here for obvious reasons).

    So the filters they have at the moment are useless to anyone with a bit of knowledge, and anyone without that knowledge doesn't want to see the images that are blocked. So a pointless exercise all round.

    1. Just in response to the "which I won't say here for obvious reasons"..

      I have to comment that I am deeply unsure the reasons are obvious.

      Indeed, since the site was "over blocked"; that is to say, by all observers, the site was *mistakenly* blocked, for many hours, wrongly, and the site's owner had little or no recourse to get the block fixed. Therefore I would argue that publishing the change to the URL is responsible and morally right.

      The outcry in the media was the reason it got fixed. How many smaller, less "mass market" sites are quietly (wrongly) blocked and who don't have the world's press interested?

      The change, therefore, I suspect, was simply to switch over to HTTPS. That is to say, add the letter "s" after http in the URL - making http://wikipedia.org become https://wikipedia.org

    2. The technique I'm alluding to is not to simply switch to using HTTPS (although that was one on my 4 ways). One way was to use Wikipedia's history system to retrieve the newest version (or an older version) by it's timestamp, and another was to just request the full sized image's URL directly, since that wasn't blocked (the small image and the page containing the link to the full size image were blocked).

      The forth way would work with any URL (assuming it was just a URL block, not a complete IP block). Perhaps my attempts to give this method secret are probably redundant, and maybe even outdated (I don't know if it still works), I'd rather not help anyone view images of exploited children, regardless of whether it could help someone view sites that have been blocked accidentally.

  2. The problem, really, is that humans aren't very good with statistics - especially when the subject is emotive - but we think we are.

    As an example...

    According to the NSPCC [1], 36 children a year are killed by their parent(s).
    According to the Department of Transport [2], the number of people killed by drunk drivers is 342 per year.

    Guess which of these figures the media are shouting and screaming about. None of the campaigners in any of the "Justice for X" groups seem to care that blaming individuals, forcing social workers to do more paperwork and generating a culture of suspicion will ultimately harm society and will still not stop parents from killing children.

    The same applies to Internet smut/porn/whatever. Campaigners call for filtering, but what they'll get if they're successful is insecure transactions (no HTTPS, remember), inconvenience and censorship. In the meantime, kids will still be able to view smut/porn/whatever.

    Even if an MP had the cojones to stand up and say "Look, children will still die", or "Look, children will still access smut", the media would rather castigate them and make a mockery of their position than accept they may be saying something sensible. After all, sensible doesn't sell newspapers. This is a real shame, as genuine good-for-society change cannot happen until government accepts that bad things will continue to happen regardless of how they try to stop them from happening.

    As long as the government tries to block smut, it cannot properly address the issues that smut creates (e.g. that porn teachers the viewers that (without going into too much detail) fantasy is reality).

    Argh. Right. Rant over.

    [1] http://www.nspcc.org.uk/inform/research/statistics/child_homicide_statistics_wda48747.html
    [2] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/244643/ras51001.xls (figure calculated as a mean average of the last five years, as per the NSPCC figures)

    1. The fantasy/reality issue is a key point, IMHO. There are young children that have trouble telling the difference, and for older children with their own experience they may not appreciate the fantasy nature of such material and hence cause issues later in life. The fact that people have no trouble understanding that the likes of Die Hard, or Star Wars, are fantasy means people can cope with there being a difference. I think education in schools about porn is a damn good idea, explaining that it is basically fantasy, and instead encouraging a respectful view towards other people somehow.

    2. The reason the likes of Die Hard can be seen to be fiction is that it is covering stuff that the public is (largely) knowledgeable about through life experience, *because* lots of the themes are both discussed and acted out in real life.

      On the other hand, sex is not generally discussed and exhibited freely, so you've basically only got your own experience to go on to figure out the difference between fantasy and reality (and for kids that experience tends towards "none"). Porn would probably be no different from other fiction if sex were discussed and performed in public (not that I'm promoting public lewd acts, just saying that not being able to draw on other peoples' experience does lead to people being less able to tell when something is fantasy).

    3. Indeed, the taboo on the matter is probably to root of most of the issues, and without it porn would be like any other 18+ fiction film material.

  3. Ultimately it comes down to the laws of supply and demand, namely that those with a demand will find a supply, by any available means.

    Why are minors attempting to access porn? Because they have a biological imperative to find out about sex that starts with puberty. Internet porn is merely the most easily accessed supply.

    Block easy access to porn, and the interest will still be there, in a group that is in possesion of smart phones, equipped with video cameras and near field communications.

    The US prohibition of alcohol and the closure of bars resulted in the production and distribution moonshine. Similarly, a possible result of this censorship of the internet could actually be an increase in child pornography, /produced by children/.

    Really it all seems ridiculous when there is a proven way to protect children from the dangers of sex: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/25/sex-education-dutch-children

    Instead sex education in this country happens too late. If it was taught before puberty, when children had no interest in doing it, then that teaching would not be competing with misconceptions on the subject built up from viewing porn, or hearing urban legends from those of their peers who have viewed it (and who had access to porn well before the internet even existed).


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