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UK porn filter: 5 reasons it won’t work

Gordon Kelly

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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.

Greg

July 23, 2013, 10:04 am

I wholly agree. If anyone thinks peados access child porn by googling "child porn videos plx", they are living in the 19th century. I think it's a fair guess that illegal porn is distributed through obfuscated web links as the very least, if not private networks and VPNs. So please David Cameron, stop wasting tax payers money.

domquark

July 23, 2013, 10:35 am

You missed one - a big one. These laws are going to mean that ISP's are going to have to keep lists of everyone that opts in - how much do you think those lists will be worth? It will mean that every UK ISP will be a huge (and profitable) target for hacking. How much would some celebrity pay to keep their name out of the media spotlight? Imagine the headline in the Sun [newspaper] "*insert famous persons name here..* watches internet porn!".
Yeah, really good idea (sic)!

alex mason

July 23, 2013, 12:26 pm

They successfully filtered pirate bay didnt they? (not)

PGrGr

July 23, 2013, 12:36 pm

Greg, don't worry. I'm sure its all just political smoke and mirrors. Cameron wants to be seen to be taking a strong public stance against Google and the like, after realising he is basically powerless (in the short term, at least) against the low amounts of tax they pay.

This is a win-win situation for him. If the internet giants to claim its not possible on technical grounds, they look bad. Alternatively if they concede and implement these filters, Cameron looks like he has taken control of them.

I'm sure he knows of all of these problems anyway. He's already said admitted that the proposals are at an early stage, and "there will be problems down the line".

My guess is that lobbying and practicalities will water the proposals down so that by the time they become law, if indeed they make it that far, they will have lost whatever bite they once would have had.

Chris Beach

July 23, 2013, 1:04 pm

Apart from the overlooking that almost every part of the tech behind the internet is built (in part due to its military beginnings) to *cope* with this kind of interruption/block. Any filtering is treated as a bad thing, and a massive multitude of workarounds are available.

The other thing is that we don't actually want to *block* the illegal things like child porn etc we want them taken down, perpetrators found and prosecuted and removed from the internet for everybody (and actually this is easier than most things as the vast majority of countries agree its illegal, unlike the highly ambiguous defn of age of consent).

The non-illegal things that are left, is then down to definition which is immensely vague and also personal. Is Playboy banned?, probably, but what about Nuts/Zoo?, there's no restrictions on buying the magazines so why should their internet sites be different? Yet the prudes wont see the difference between the two, and neither will the daily mail parents that can't be arsed to do their job.

One thing I thought that *might* work (assuming that actual educating the people is out of the question) is an age rating (similar to the games/movies etc) these are broader than the definition of what is porn, they have a longer more accepted categorisation, and are fairly globally known, and would also cover other things that have also been deemed unacceptable for kids (violence, hate speech etc etc).

For one I can see a massive uptake in the sales of 'IRC for dummies' :)

Wraith1980

July 23, 2013, 2:01 pm

It's more 'darknet' services I suspect. TOR is a veritable cess-pit of child porn. The darkweb is a place where you can easily come across these images by accident, so I can't see it being a problem for those actually looking to find them to use this service. TOR is untraceable and essentially unblockable. What exactly is this move going to achieve? Nothing.

Wraith1980

July 23, 2013, 2:02 pm

I was going to post this. TPB traffic went UP after the block. So effectively they risk actually increasing the amount of child porn searched, simply by exposing the methods used by the paedo's to find it.

toboev

July 23, 2013, 2:45 pm

Why do they keep conflating child abuse with pornography? I can see that it serves the agenda of anti-pornography campaigners, but only at the expense of clear thinking and effective action against child abuse. It is a shameful ploy.

Timewarp

July 23, 2013, 8:27 pm

Simply when they say Pornography, nobody cares but if they throw words around like Child Porn and Child Abuse then suddenly you can rile up the angry mobs into doing whatever you want.

LW

July 23, 2013, 10:02 pm

It is very difficult for Government to get the general consent of it's electorate for greater control over anything that widely impacts it's peoples' lives... unless it can make the case that it is for the safety of children. People accept this argument and it's proven to be a useful lever into an initial position from which wider policy objectives can be achieved.

Gordon Kelly

July 24, 2013, 2:42 pm

I think there is actually an important debate to be held about the term 'child pornography'. Right now it is used because it is a term that people understand, but it is a poor one.

Gordon Kelly

July 24, 2013, 2:43 pm

Yes that is a fair point. It was also mentioned that blocking certainly keyword searches opens a door for this to be applied in areas outside of child pornography. Which is another very dangerous path.

Gordon Kelly

July 24, 2013, 2:43 pm

Yes a double edged sword sadly. Even this article is.

Gordon Kelly

July 24, 2013, 2:49 pm

Agreed - in fact I make the example of an online gallery which sells artistic nudes... where does that fit in?!

Age ratings could work, but it would also destroy anonymity on the web - not everyone who wants to surf legal pornography wants to use their formal identification to do so! - and illegal in the case of child pornography has no age limit.

Gordon Kelly

July 24, 2013, 2:50 pm

Spot on and that is the danger. The slogan behind it will win support, even if the implementation and deeper thinking behind it are troublesome at best and manipulative and downright dangerous at worst.

toboev

July 24, 2013, 6:38 pm

My principal objection is not to the confused terminology, except in so far as it leads to a confused debate. My objection is that they have rolled up the quite separate issues of child sexual abuse (by whatever name), and legal pornography, into one bandwagon. One issue is a criminal activity horrific beyond description, the other is a legal activity of debatable morality.

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