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Friday, 11 February 2011

I don't need to defend porn to fight the UK net filtering proposals

Government censors set to decide what sites we can look at?
Personally I don't think we should judge what people choose to do in the company of their computer, so long as the curtains are drawn.

But if you're ideologically opposed to pornography there are still lots of reasons to oppose any government plans to regulate the internet.

What is being called for, mostly by the Christian right, is state censorship of communications.

Any attempt by the pro-filtering lobby to avoid the 'c'-word - censorship - is a tacit acknowledgement that the proposals are of momentous constitutional significance.

In addition to the inherent threats to the democratic process stemming from any media censorship; those claiming a system of net filtering to be both workable and effective are deluding themselves to the scale of the challenge, over-estimating the capability of technology, and under-estimating the cost of running any national net filter.

And so, without defending pornography, here's just some of the problems a national net filter will introduce.


Problem 1 : compiling and maintaining the block list

What is pornography, and what is art?  That is the question the censors will have to ask themselves many times an hour when we consider that popular photo-sharing websites like Flickr allow images most would consider pornographic.

Flickr does have its own community-driven content flagging system, meaning those who do not opt to see porn shouldn't see any.  But there's no robust age verification system for the opt-in, so will our national net filter opt for a wholesale block on Flickr?  Or will it assess each image?  Or is porn/art on Flickr OK, whereas other websites are blocked?

As well as compiling and managing a massive list of websites, how will appeals be handled?  A company finding themselves accidentally added to the list could lose thousands or millions of pounds a year in lost trade.  In fact, how will a legitimate company, especially one overseas, establish they are on a block list?

Who will review the list, and how will the list be open to public scrutiny in order to prevent any political interference?


Problem 2 : the creeping threat to democracy

A key problem with any single-purpose censorship system is that it soon becomes very hard for a government to resist the temptation to expand the scope of the filter in order to address other perceived threats.

Reports from Australia, where the government has trialled a national internet filter, have claimed:
  • Even when users opt-out of the net filtering; many sites, including some adult pornography, gambling websites and overseas websites covering the topic of euthanasia remained blocked.

    The pressure for creep is exemplified by this quote from Australian newspaper The Age:
    "But asked to specify the categories of content that Senator Fielding would like blocked by the mandatory first tier, a Family First spokeswoman indicated the party would want X-rated and refused classification (RC) content banned for everyone, including adults."
  • Legitimate businesses were accidentally blocked, including a dentist and a kennel operator.

The pressure for creep in the UK is also present.  In 2008, the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith made a speech about extremist websites.  In that speech she linked violent extremism and paedophilia before spewing her now infamous quote:
"Where there is illegal material on the net, I want it removed"
But there is a significant difference between tackling extremism and the very limited, targeted filtering which is already applied to most UK net connections to block images of child abuse; in that one can be defined objectively, with very clear almost-universal boundaries; whilst extremism is highly subjective.

Without wanting to over-play the current situation in Egypt, it is clear that the Mubarak regime considers many of its political opponents extremists.  Whilst we can draw clear distinctions between any recent UK government and less democratic governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Iran...there is nevertheless an inherent danger to democracy once politically-motivated censorship is tolerated.


Problem 3 : cost

Only yesterday I was perhaps the first news source to reveal that the UK government has been forced to acknowledge that the cost of implementing the anti-copyright-infringement measures of the Digital Economy Act could lead to an increase in the cost of broadband and consequently price some poorer families off the net.

The cost of implementing any national net filter, together with a proper oversight and appeals body, would surely dwarf the cost of implementing sections of the Digital Economy Act.

Furthermore, unlike the Digital Economy Act where ISPs will only be asked to pay a quarter of total running costs, it is likely that a larger proportion of the costs of censoring the internet would be borne by ISPs (subject to this being legal under European law, see below).

So whilst a national net filter may protect some children, subject to workability (see below), it may also lead to further increases in the cost of broadband, pricing more families off the internet.


Problem 4: effectiveness

The question "how effective will net censorship be in protecting children?" actually breaks down into 2 categories:
  1. How effective will the technical measures be preventing children accessing restricted sites
  2. Will the censorship system stop children accessing porn by other means
My friend Trefor Davies does a good job at tackling my first point in his post How to get round your school's web filter.  Provocative, for the chief of a sizeable UK tech firm.

Bypassing a national internet filter is as simple as accessing an oversees web proxy or VPN (virtual, private network) service.  Since many corporations provide employees with access to VPN services in order to provide secure corporate communications, it will be both impracticable and highly illiberal to ban such services.

On point 2 I'm reminded of my own pre-internet school days, where certain boys were well-known for exploiting the ban on shops selling porn to children with their own black market.  These boys with older brothers or liberal fathers made considerable extra pocket money for selling literature way above cover price.

Will the situation be any difference in 2015, by which time a 64GB MicroSD card will probably cost a couple of quid, can hold 6 full-length HD porn movies or hundreds of thousands of pictures, and being the size of a fingernail can be hidden practically anywhere?

Will the unintended consequence of a child protection filter be the rise of the child black-marketeer?


Problem 5 : European Law

Briefly, I question whether any national net filter will be compatible with strict European rules limiting controls that states can impose on telecommunications service providers (Authorisation Directive 2002/20/EC) and e-commerce rules (2000/31/EC) giving ISPs protection from prosecution (sometimes called Safe Harbour) so long as they only act as information carriers and do no other filtering; they act as mere conduits.

As the law stands today, it is possible that any ISP implementing a filtering system in the network could loose mere conduit status, and therefore open themselves up to civil claims for damages should a subscriber suffer loss or damage as a result of using their internet service.


Appendix A: The ineffective censorship paradox

The last time I spoke on the subject of censorship (during a debate in the Jubilee Room at the Palace of Westminster, no less!), I was challenged to explain how a censorship system could be both ineffective and a threat to free speech, free expression and press freedom.

Firstly, a clarification.  When I talk about ineffective censorship I do need to acknowledge that in some cases even ineffective censorship is effective in preventing accidental exposure to content considered harmful.  But I strongly assert that the potential harm for any national net filtering plan far outweighs the limited good.

The answer to unravelling the paradox lies in motivation.  Anyone who's motivated to bypass a web filter will, in all likelihood, succeed in their aim, as all web filters are inherently ineffective given the limits of current technology and the current topography of the internet.

If a corrupt government decided to censor politically damaging information, until anyone knew of such information, no-one would be motivated to dig it out.

When the presence of such information becomes known, still only a minority of the electorate would be motivated to confirm this information.  If you remain unconvinced on this point, consider what proportion of the population take what they read in one newspaper as fact, never bothering to check with other news sources?

Censorship can be simultaneously effective in its misuse (as a political PR tool) and ineffective in its stated aim (protecting children from pornography) if children are more likely to (i) hear of the existence of porn on the internet; and, (ii) become motivated to bypass the access restriction; than the electorate are likely to learn of the existence of a cover-up and be motivated to find out more.


Appendix B: The compromise solution

Trefor again has some excellent parenting tips to help keep children safe on the internet.

If I were out there lobbying for measures to protect children from dangerous net content I would seriously consider scaling-back my demands, as network-level blocking is simply not workable, and instead look at compromise solutions, for example to encourage all ISPs to make protection software available for free, and easy to activate should the user so choose.

If such software was provided on home internet routers, all devices in the home would automatically be protected, not withstanding the ease of bypass.

In some respects it's easier to make filtering more robust in a domestic environment because it's practical to block some VPN and proxy services too.  If a similar block was put in the network, it would also catch everyone who needs to make a remote connection to their office for work, leaving such people faced with the prospect of having to phone up their ISP and ask for the porn filter to be lifted, leaving themselves open to potentially embarrassing questions from their partner.

I would still oppose any attempt to ship computers or routers with filtering enabled by default.

@JamesFirth

3 comments:

  1. Here's another one to add to your list...

    Lets take a simple image search for 'three' http://www.google.co.uk/images?hl=en&biw=1952&bih=1054&gbv=2&tbs=isch:1&sa=1&q=three&aq=f&aqi=g10&aql=&oq=

    Lot of quite normal images in the list, are any of them pornographic (turn safe filter off if you don't get any)?

    If there are any that page should be blocked by the current censorship proposal....

    ... hold on we've just blocked the worlds largest search engine.

    Government: "Ah, er, oops, better put an exemption in for big sites like Google where there is collateral damage"
    Small Startup: "Hang on, you're giving Google a competitive advantage"
    Gov: "Sorry you'll have to change what you do."
    Startup: "Thats not fair"
    Gov: "Tough"
    AN Other Large Corp: "We see you've given Google an exception, we'd like the same or we'll take you to court"
    Gov: "Go on then..."
    Corp: "Okay, you asked for it, 'Dear Judge we'd like an injunction on this blocking law while we bring a case' "
    Judge: "Okay, looks like restriction of trade and unfair competition to me"
    Gov: "What!"
    etc.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I can highly recommend reading "The Lord Chamberlain Regrets" - it's the story of the censorship of British theatre.

    The book examines the curious fact that every play performed in the UK had to be looked over and rated or rejected by the government before it was allowed to be performed.

    This lasted from 1737 to 1968. That’s 231 years. Imagine how competitive the UK’s digital economy will be after 231 years in the wilderness.

    More thoughts on the subject from when Andy Burnham floated it in 2008.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am amazed that you are so ahead of the curve on these matters. You must have a crystal ball.

    The question that you posed regarding children becoming black marketeers is dead on the money as is the comparison to certain magazines in schools. At the moment I have the opportunity to to check on what my kids are viewing and discuss it with them. Kids are curious, as they should be, and blocking them will only result in driving the problem underground.

    There are ways other than VPN's and proxies that would allow access to censored sites. Remember the old days, before broadband was prevalent? If I 'dial up' to a foreign ISP that is not operating a censorship policy then the whole system is subverted. What then? Do we then start blocking telephone numbers?

    ReplyDelete

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