UK porn filter: 5 reasons it won’t work

Pornography will be blocked from every UK home and across public Wi-Fi services according to plans announced on Monday

by Conservative prime minister David Cameron. Those still wishing to

access pornography will need to speak with their Internet Service

Provider (ISP) to opt back in.

In a speech Mr Cameron said the

move was taken to crack down on child pornography as well as limiting

access to pornography to “protect our children and their innocence.”

In

addition to the block, Mr Cameron said videos streamed online will be

subject to the same restrictions as those sold in shops. Search engines

have until October to implement stronger filters to block access to

illegal content, and police and experts from the Child Exploitation and

Online Protection Centre (CEOP) will have greater powers to trace

illegal content and examine file sharing networks.

The new laws

will come into practice for all new ISP customers by the end of 2013

while existing customers must be contacted by their ISP and asked

whether they wish to use “family-friendly filters” or not.

Since

the announcement supporters and objectors have been in strong voice.

Supporters backing the protection they argue it will give to children

and less technologically aware families. Detractors citing the evils of

censorship, the moral stigma created by opting against the filters, the

shifting of responsibility from good parenting and the hypocrisy of the

government’s funding cuts to CEOP last year.

We have a bigger

complaint: the new laws suggest politicians don’t understand technology.

Consequently – for better or worse – the measures taken to enforce them

will fail. Here are the reasons why:

Reason #1: Filters don’t work
Tor The

subject may be controversial, but we have been here before with another

equally polarising topic: piracy.

Due to legal rulings, ISPs were last year required to block access

to prominent piracy sites and for search engines to filter results.

While

this may dissuade the most casual of pirates, a quick search will

reveal numerous ways to get around these blocks from VPNs (Virtual

Private Networks), DNS patches, web proxies, alternative addresses to

access the sites in question, browser extensions, anonymous browsers like Tor (simplified version of how it works pictured above), smartphone apps and

even via a hack using Google Translate!

The result? In April, illegal

downloads of Game of Thrones broke piracy records.

In short, even effectively deployed filters are easily bypassed whether it be for piracy or pornography.

Reason #2: ISPs are an ineffective police

The

final sentence to Reason #1 is particularly pertinent here because even

though “effectively deployed filters” are easily circumvented, most

ISPs are in no position to effectively deploy them in the first place.

The

prevalence of pornography has fuelled the new laws, but prevalence also

reflects demand and no ISP has the resources – either in manpower or

financial – to keep a lid on it all. “It’s technically not possible,”

said Trefor Davies, chief technology officer at ISP Timico to the

Telegraph. Furthermore, what isn’t blocked rises straight to the top and

most likely stems from the darkest and least well trodden areas of the

Internet.  

Equally problematic are the mistakes that will

happen. “Blocking lawful pornography content … will lead to the

blocking of access to legitimate content” argues Nicholas Lansman,

secretary general of ISP industry body ISPA. “It is only effective in

preventing inadvertent access.”

Reason #3: Free software does a job better
Moralists

will argue that taking the responsibility for what children surf away

from parents and placing it on ISPs encourages neglectful parenting.

Whether or not this is true from a technological standpoint the bigger

concern is it will push more effective, free filtering software into the

background.

To their credit much of this software is already supplied by the majority of ISPs including Virgin Media (Virgin Media Security), BT (NetProtect Plus), Sky (McAfee Parental Controls), TalkTalk (HomeSafe) and many more. There are also family filters built into Windows and Mac OS X as well as the majority of smartphone platforms.

In addition, most third-party routers have integrated parental controls these days and Cloud platforms like Linksys Smart WiFi and D-Link’s mydlink

can be controlled from any location with a web browser. Furthermore, all

these services let parents tailor settings to their own preferences,

limit content based on time of day, specific devices and so forth.

By

contrast, the new laws tell families to either block pornographic access

for everyone in the household or grant access to everyone in the

household. It is a blunt instrument that risks giving parents a false

sense of security when better control is already at their fingertips.

Reason #4: Impacts net neutrality
DomoThe

secretary general of ISPA has already said the new laws “will lead to

the block of access to legitimate content” and this means a system of

white listing innocent sites must be undertaken.

Where the line is drawn

– soft pornography, lads’ mags, tabloids, lingerie shops, galleries,

social media websites… – is already a problem, but it also favours the

larger sites who will be vetted more quickly.

The concern is

this creates a two tier internet where there is no hope of vetting every

possible website that may sail within touching distance of a ban. How

not? According to Domo

(graphic right) last year there were 48 hours of new YouTube video, 571

new websites, 347 new WordPress blogs, 27,778 new Tublr blogs, 3,600

new Instagram photos and 684,478 new pieces of content uploaded to

Facebook every minute.

As such only broad strokes can possibly

be used with the major corporations getting preferential treatment while

a small online gallery specialising in artistic nudes, for example, may

go out of business.

Net neutrality is the principle that all data on

the internet is treated equally by ISPs and governments. As battered as

it is by search engine rankings and piracy blocks, it cannot remotely

hope to exist under the new pornography laws.

5. Private networks are child pornography’s distribution system

While

minors’ inadvertent access to pornography is deeply concerning, child

pornography is clearly the deeper evil and it is hard to see from a

technological standpoint how the new laws can better control it.

“[Child

pornography is] invariably shared over private networks and not found

by a simple image search,” argues Daniel Foster, founder of web hosts

34SP.com. “History shows us that they will be quicker at keeping this

target moving than law enforcement will be at catching it.”

Where

the new laws may have some success, however, are the greater search

powers given to both CEOP and the police to examine file transfer

networks, but they will likely run into strong opposition on privacy

grounds.

That aside it is hard to see how the majority of the new laws

can successfully address child pornography or children’s access to

pornography and they may in fact do more harm than good.