21 Comments

Summary:

Even without getting into slippery-slope arguments about censorship, proposals to force porn viewers to register with their internet service providers fail miserably on a technical level.

Thanks to the curious British institution of prereleasing sections of major speeches, we know now that, later on Monday, the prime minister will announce what will effectively be an on-by-default online pornography filter in the UK. While web users today can opt into activating such a family-friendly filter through their internet service provider (ISP), in the future they will have to opt out.

This has been coming for a long while. Previously, when the government tried to get ISPs to block pornography by default, the ISPs pushed back and the aforementioned off-by-default filter scheme came into being. However, a leaked letter from the government to the ISPs earlier this month showed that this was going to change, like it or not, and here we are.

Some of the words that will fall out of prime minister David Cameron’s mouth later today:

“I want to talk about the internet. The impact it is having on the innocence of our children. How online pornography is corroding childhood. And how, in the darkest corners of the internet, there are things going on that are a direct danger to our children, and that must be stamped out…

“I’m not making this speech because I want to moralise or scaremonger, but because I feel profoundly as a politician, and as a father, that the time for action has come. This is, quite simply, about how we protect our children and their innocence.”

Now, there is no question that children today find it much easier to view pornography than in the pre-internet era. I can certainly see why many people have a problem with this and want to see something done about it. The problem is, this is a bad way of going about it.

A few issues:

  • Bad blacklists: Unless there’s some heavyweight on-the-fly deep packet inspection going on, filters such as these need to run off a blacklist, so they know what to block. These lists are not generally compiled entry-by-entry, but rather by category. Mistakes are made. Many UK mobile operators have been running automatic filters for adult content for a while, and they often get it stunningly wrong – as GigaOM can testify. Cameron seems to want DVD-style age classifications to apply online, but the amount of material up for censorship is much larger there than for officially-released music and movies, meaning the process will need to be automated. Who runs those systems and how? Who compiles and maintains the blacklists?
  • Diverse platforms: YouTube is often blocked through those mobile internet blacklists, presumably because some of its content is adult-oriented, though obviously not outright pornographic, otherwise YouTube would block it itself. So what about general-purpose platforms like Tumblr that are widely (mostly?) used by kids, but that also contain vast swathes of pornography with the approval of the site’s proprietors? The chances of some Tumblr pages being on the list and others staying off are pretty slim. Important to note: other types of legal content that often get blocked through such systems include sex education sites and LGBT sites.
  • Security risk: One doesn’t have to be an outright libertarian to spot the problem with official lists of porn users – the potential for misuse is quite high. I don’t just mean the potential for a bad government having dirt on its citizens (though cough PRISM and Tempora cough), but also the possibility of said lists being hacked into by others, such as tabloid journalists. What’s more, due to the problems mentioned above, those lists might have quite a few people on them who merely wanted to unblock some miscategorised Tumblr page.
  • Smart kids: When it comes to the internet, I think it’s fair to say digital natives have the edge over middle-aged government ministers. Filters and blocks don’t work when you know how to operate a proxy or VPN – and thanks to the crackdown on pirated music and video, such techniques are widely used.

And then there’s the potential for such mechanisms being used to censor other types of material – but that’s a slippery-slope argument that deals more with theoretical than immediate dangers. There’s plenty to be worried about with the current proposals.

It should be noted that the government also wants to crack down further on various types of illegal pornography involving children or scenes of real or simulated rape. Web service providers such as Google are being urged to do more to block such content from being listed in their search results, and Cameron wants those searching for illegal content to see pop-up warning pages. There are debates to be had around aspects of this – see this tweet for a salient jibe — but it’s a somewhat different matter from the accessing of legal pornography.

Cameron’s crackdown is, of course, a political matter – particularly after the legalization of gay marriage, the right wing of his Conservative Party is getting antsy. But even without getting into the politics of the proposals, their technological literacy leaves a lot to be desired. If you want to be seen to be doing something, that thing should at least work.

PS – For a spot of unintentional pitch-black humor, here’s how one Conservative MP greeted the proposals, namely through a filter of confusion:

Margot James tweet

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  1. Yes, the first implementation will produce all sorts of problems.And that will force YouTube and Tumblr to react. We have evidence in the UK of crimes catalysed by this stuff. Frankly the criminals wouldn’t know a VPN from their elbow. So we have to do something. You have a better positive proposal?

    1. Something must be done! Won’t someone think about the children!

      Moral panic anyone?

    2. You seem to think criminals are incredibly stupid and lazy, which is not always the case. VPN’s, Proxies and the Tor network to name a few are easy to use. No doubt most people have heard of at least one of these and if they have then the filters will be instantly negated. I remember one day I decided to have a look on thepiratebay and to my surprise it had been blocked. 5 seconds of fury at my freedom being taken away, I opened up my Tor browser and away I go, browsing thepiratebay just like the last year of campaigning to block it had never happened.

    3. You idiot. Sneering at “moral panic” — as if being moral was stupid — is deeply stupid. Porn is an evil, whatever age you are. But Cameron and co have no morals, and couldn’t give a damn.

      What is the practical effect of this proposal? Is it not to set up a system of blacklists and controls?

      Never mind what the excuse is. Any such proposal will always profess to weep tears over the poor little kiddies, but these are just words simply to disable opposition. Idiots like you will sneer at the very idea of censoring porn (while happily censoring politically incorrect comment). But the real effect is what we should be troubled about.

      Once this exists, it WILL be use to block “offensive” content. How can it not?

      And who defines “offensive”? Oh yes; pressure groups and lobbyists. The same groups who have just rammed through gay marriage with utter contempt for 99% of the population who object.

      It must be a system of censorship. It will be a system of censorship. Because those in charge are not trustworthy to act in the interests of society as a whole. Cameron and co proved that last week, in forcing gay marriage in, and the hell with society as a whole.

      I don’t know what the answer is. I certainly don’t want porn on my internet connection (or spam, either; fat chance of that being addressed!). But if we can’t trust the establishment to act as most of us want, and we just proved that we can’t, then I’d rather have no controls. I think.

      1. Or you could setup a block on your own network… Poof!!! Most routers have them built in.

      2. Tetracycloide Me Monday, July 22, 2013

        Sneering at moral panic has nothing at all to do with saying ‘being moral is stupid.’

      3. “Porn is an evil.” Ignoring the grammatical issue there the opinion of someone who opens their statement with something so subjective and crass is not worth the time it takes to read it.

        What do you know about porn other than that it offends your 1950’s sensibilities by visualising the subject of sex which should be discussed in hushed shameful whispers with one’s husband or wife after the children have gone to bed or better yet not at all.

        Do you ever stop to think that while Porn does offer the sordid and depraved and in some cases the downright distasteful that it also offers something that many millions of Britons want? Did you ever stop to think that without stuffy out of touch introverts like you sex would just be a topic of conversation like any other, a wonderful expression of intimacy that wouldn’t need to live behind the curtains, under the covers and with the lights off.

        If you are looking for something to blame for rise of porn how about taking some responsibility for propagating the sentiment that sex is somehow dark and immoral and not to be discussed. Without your close minded views maybe we could all be open and honest about our sexual desires and not feel guilty or sordid or ashamed for discussing our fantasies with out partners. Maybe then the need for porn would not be so ubiquitous. People wouldn’t feel compelled to seek out their desires online where there is no one to offer perspective or context and the solace encourages darker thoughts.

        I enjoy porn, so does my girlfriend and I think it is not too naive to say that the multi billion dollar industry it comprises wouldn’t exist if there weren’t many many millions more like us. It’s no different to say drinking, if done openly and with the right intentions then it is a harmless vice, if done secretly and without reflection it can lead to addiction, violence, crime, abuse, damage etc etc etc. But then I imagine you’re the kind of person who would ban alcohol too…..

        Want kids to be good kids and understand sex? Stop blaming the government and do some damn parenting!

        1. You had me until “stuffy out of touch introverts”. Because obviously you cannot simply express your correct opinion about porn not being evil, without attacking some completely unrelated group. Welcome to Bigotry Olympics. Run by one vile and callous self-styled extravert.

      4. 99%? Think you are deluded sir.

    4. “We have evidence in the UK of crimes catalysed by this stuff.”

      This stuff? What does this mean exactly? And what sort of crimes? The kind of crime where you stay inside out of everyone’s way while wanking?

      ” Frankly the criminals wouldn’t know a VPN from their elbow.”

      Criminals are smarter than you think.

    5. “We have evidence in the UK of crimes catalysed by this stuff.”

      The vast majority of research on the subject is that the net effect of ‘this stuff’ is fewer crimes.

      “We have to do something.”

      False premise. Doing nothing IS a better proposal.

  2. Valentine North Monday, July 22, 2013

    It’s a dangerous step, adding filters. Regardless of cause.
    One, you can’t trust the people who create the filters. How do they decide what is porn or not? There are a lot of museums which showcase some racy paintings and sculptures. Will they ban those too?
    How about music videos? They might be called decent in some part of the world, but not everywhere.
    Next, are the issues, if the filter creators add something more by mistake or intentionally, like, a video of a political candidate before voting, or something similar.
    Two. Once you set up the infrastructure, you’ll have others trying to use it. RIAA & friends will try to kill off any kind of competition, whether legal or pirate.
    Three. What if at some point, someone decides, all content from a specific country should be banned? Or just most of it? It will be like a giant on/off switch for the internet.

    I don’t live there, so I don’t really care, but a lot of other countries are looking closely right now, and whatever measures they take, the others will probably soon follow.

    Great China Firewall works the same way, you know. A great filter, but with an entirely differerent scope …

  3. As always the best moral filter is parenting.

  4. This is an action of a true police state. UK residents are in denial about living in a police state. The US is trying to do the same thing. What the UK Government should do is use the leading causes of death to ban activity. To reduce deaths they should outlaw cars, bicycles, cell phones, mountain climbing, etc.

  5. It is just another example of parents being too lazy to raise their children themselves. Rather than sitting with their kids and keeping an eye on what they are doing, they would prefer to lock them away in their rooms with their own computer and not have to do anything. “Get of your arse and do some parenting!”

  6. edmundsingleton Tuesday, July 23, 2013

    Here we go again, as great pieces of art are no longer available that have been available for centuries. Male and female parts are hidden behind a fig leaf progress…

  7. mrpeteraustin Wednesday, July 24, 2013

    The problem is the technology. Let’s assume a filter is 90% effective, which would be pretty damn good given that millions people will be actively trying to defeat it. This means 10% of porn gets through, which is enough that people won’t have any difficulty finding it, but 10% of legal sites get blocked, which is horrific for the businesses which are temporarily closed down.

  8. Thanks for all the parenting advice. How exactly do you have the conversation with your daughter about resisting pressure from boys to recreate the abusive relationships that seem to dominate modern porn?

  9. Agreed, there are enough problems already with most smartphones blocking ‘adult’ sites – including LGBT and sex ed sites – by default. You have to disclose your identity to the phone company to unblock them. My phone isn’t a smartphone but it blocks ‘adult’ sites even though there’s no porn on the sites. Sadly, those who lose out are likely to be kids looking for sex ed websites. I especially feel bad for teens who think they might be gay or trans.

    The idea of ‘childhood innocence’ is nonsensical; it was proven in Freud’s day that young children masturbate. It’s a learning process. Kids don’t just wake up one day and start puberty or wake up one day fancying boys/girls/whatever.

    I suspect that reducing rape would be better achieved by talking to children about respect for others and about sex instead of the never ending moral panic over porn which surfaces every other year. Though seeing as the radfems have dubbed it “rape porn” this year, that is an interesting difference.

    However people need to realise that fantasising about rape and committing rape are unrelated. I fantasise all sorts of violent and weird things – but I have no criminal record and have never attacked anybody (sexually or otherwise).

  10. Just realised my VPN is actually on right now…

    Politicians think the electorate are idiots. Lots of people know about VPNs and proxys. Techies and geeks know about Tor. Even the Firefox browser has add ons such as Ghostery and Do not Track while Microsoft is also upgrading its privacy protection, as it never stops telling us in its commercial.

    And when the filter is put on, everyone who doesn’t yet know will be googling and asking their friends until they do know. I suspect most people know about the existence of VPNs but just haven’t bothered to use one.

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