I have written on a number of occasions about the Government’s “anti internet porn” agenda and the MP Claire Perry. However, now that things appear to be finally happening and we have clearer ideas of the agenda, I thought it was time again to write on the subject.

But before I start, let’s get some things out the way about my leanings, biases, qualification to talk on the subject, etc. I have 2 daughters, one of which is very young and the other is teenage. The eldest has been able to use a computer since she was just a couple of years old and has been using laptops for most of her life. I’ve used blocking and monitoring software. But I also know how things work – I’ve been working in IT for 24 years and have been working in web development for around 13 years.

I’m not interested in the ability to view porn so a cross-household block would be fine by me. Equally I’m no prude and certainly don’t think that people who do view it are odd, weird or in any way depraved. Obviously illegal pornography is wrong, though, and I have no tolerance for those who create and/or publish it.

As for my political leanings, I wouldn’t want anybody to think that my argument is set based on whether I’m a fan of the current government or not, so I’m happy to say that I’m all over the place. Or no-where, depending how you look at it. I think that all of the main parties have been rubbish over recent years and have absolute no interest in any of them. Or the minor parties either. I vote, but it’s down to the policies of the individuals at the time.

That’s me. I’d like to think I can view this from both sides of the argument and set a dispassionate and level headed review.

What is happening?

So, what are the governmental plans? They plan to force the main ISPs to provide adult filtering on all new internet connections, switched on by default. In other words, whenever you move or initially sign up for broadband then you will be provided with a filtered service, only switchable by contacting them and requesting it.

A leaked memo, send to the ISPs by a governmental office, last week was very eye-opening. It’s tone was demanding and rude, whilst expecting the ISPs to make decisions based on little or sketchy information. For example, they had to agree to make money available to provide public education on the subject without being provided any details on how this was to be done and how much this would cost. It also revealed how the “default on” filtering was to be done. Originally, the likes of Claire Perry wanted it switched on to everyone and you’d have to ring your ISP and ask for it to be specifically switched off, if this is what you wanted. ISPs didn’t want this, mainly because the general public at large didn’t. Instead, they would offer the ability to select which one. The compromise is the latter, but by default there will be a tick in the “on” box.

How does filtering work?

But let’s rewind a bit and understand how this proposed monitoring works. Or rather, how the internet works.

Websites are stored on computers throughout the world and can accessed by something called an “IP Address” – a series of numbers that is used to identify an online component. Having to access a website via it’s IP address is possible but isn’t easy to remember. So, a number of computers exist that store all the IP addresses and a matching domain name (this is known as DNS). It is the latter that you type into your browser’s address bar.

What your ISP does is connect your home to all of these various servers, at high speed, usually providing DNS services as well. It sends your content down to the sites and returns the data back.

And here is one of initial issues. Blaming an ISP for internet content is like blaming the manufacturer of your TV aerial for a programme you watched on BBC2 last night – an ISP simply transports the data about for you and doesn’t actually create it.

Filtering can be applied at a number of levels…

  1. On your computer, by software. Commercial products exist but you cal also get it free as well. You have to install this on every device that requires monitoring (including smartphones, tablets, etc). The advantage of this is the control it gives you – you can set individual filtering for difference devices.
  2. On your router. That box that your ISP sent you and provides your WiFi is your router and it contains software. It may already have some crude filtering software on it and it’s possible that even better versions can be added, but it probably won’t be easy to do so (advanced users should probably only try this). The advantage this does give you is that it will work on all devices in your home and you’ll have abilty to craft the level of monitoring to how you want it. However, take any of your laptops or smartphones out of the house and the filtering will stop (or, on a smartphone, just turn off the WiFi and use 3G instead).
  3. DNS level. As I said before your ISP will usually provide DNS but it’s possible to use someone else’s instead, and some of these have adult filtering built in (i.e. any blacklisted sites simply won’t work when you type in the web address for them). You may be able to do this on your router (although some ISPs prevent it) – if not, it’s often possible on the individual devices.
  4. ISP level. Your ISP monitors the site’s your requesting and, depending on how you have your filter set up, will or won’t return the results. Again this will work as long as you’re at home. However, precise monitoring probably won’t be possible (depending on how your ISP implements it) as it’s controlled centrally and not by yourself.

But what does filtering do? Filtering is software, written usually by a third party, that doesn’t allow you to view blacklisted sites. This may be at an individual page level or an entire site.

Websites are categorised and you can decide which categories you wish to block – pornography, gambling, violence, etc. Obviously, illegal sites are blocked automatically. Although the government seem to only talking about pornography, it is actually all of these “adult” categories that are due to be blocked and nobody has yet spoken as to whether category level control is something ISPs will need to provide.

How do they know which sites to block? Many people seem to think there’s some magic software that works it out, but this is rarely the case – certainly not sites that are categorised by images rather than text content. Even if you could write a program that would detect a woman’s bare breast, how would you differentiate between a pornography site and one promoting breast-feeding? In most cases filtering companies employ people to manually check sites and categorise them. The consequence of this is that sites are often missed or may be incorrectly filtered.

The latter point is something that people such as Ms Perry seemingly don’t care about. What’s the harm in incorrectly blocking a site? Well, if you’re a small business that’s dependant on your site then it means a lot. Yet, the government proposal doesn’t provide a means to resolve such issues when they arise. How many people, incorrectly blocked, do you think it will take to sue the government before they do something about this? The government answer is to contact the ISP in question. But what if they’re all blocking a site? Contact each one? TalkTalk has had a filter in place for sometime and promised that they would act on such incorrect blocks quickly. Unfortunately, requests on their forums have gone un-actioned for months.

One last point that’s worth making – the companies behind these filters are often based in the US, where the things you’d expect to have filtered may be very different.

So, let’s summarise at this point. The major ISPs will start filtering and blocking content by default. They may give you some control over what is filtered, or it may just be anything deemed “adult”. This is deemed by a third party company, often foreign, who will often mis-filter sites or miss inappropriate ones altogether. When this happens they’re under no obligation to provide any means to correct this or any timescales.

What’s wrong with it?

As I said at the beginning I’ve experience of filtering software myself and know that often blanket website blocks are applied, rather than individual pages. Who’d want to sit and verify each video on YouTube for instance, so better to block all the content? But that’s no good if your child wants to view some quite legitamte child-friendly video (e.g. a walk-through of their favourite video game which they’ve got stuck on). If you have computer based filtering then you can simply turn it off for this site – when it’s ISP based you can’t. With ISP filtering if you find your favourite site blocked you have no other recourse than to switch off all your filtering to be able to access it – would you be happy with this?

To top all of this off the filtering is even less perfect. You can use proxy sites, for example, to access blocked websites – a proxy site will access the website you require on your behalf and all your ISP sees is you accessing the proxy site. Unfortunately, such proxy sites are totally legal and can be used for other, more than legitimate, purposes. Google Image search, for instance, uses this technique and will happily display pornographic images even if you have a filter in place. If you don’t think children know any of this, think again – many do and the more filtering is applied the more they’ll share this knowledge to their friends. Don’t forget – most children are probably more “tech savvy” than you are.

But, it’s better than nothing?

A lot of people at this stage will now mention parental responsibility. People are concerned that such filters will make parents blaise about their children’s surfing habits. This may be the case but surely some assistance is better than nothing? However, it does have to go hand-in-hand with that aforementioned resonsbilioty. What we can’t do is pretent to enforce something that takes this away. The solution being proposed is flawed and this is what needs communication, not that ISPs are letting our children see bad things and this proposal will make it all better. This is the education that people need.

Many people’s big concern about this proposal, however, is how much government will dictate what is filtered. Right now it may be pornography and graphic violence. But tomorrow? How much do you want the government to dictate what you do and don’t see? Indeed, they’re already now talking about the fact that if the ISPs can block porn, surely they can be automatically blocking illegal content, such as films and music.

But, isn’t this all about stopping child porn?

You’d think. Unfortunately, all of the above has now been muddied with David Cameron talking about responsbility over illegal content, for example child pornography. This is a different matter entirely – this doesn’t need specific filters but blocking in the first place from all points. ISPs already block such sites without the need of specific software (which is done by removing them from their DNS servers) as do the search engines. Google, for instance, helps pay for the Internet Watch Foundation which actively looks for such sites and then informs all the appropriate authorities and companies (e.g. all the search engines).

The problem, though, is this is confusing the public over what the ISPs are providing, with commenters on media sites often thinking that it’s these illegal sites that are to be blocked by ISPs. Instead in recent days Mr Cameron has been vilifying companies such as Google for something they’re already actively doing.

But if you don’t think is ridiclous enough, here’s a quote from the PM aimed at Google, et al…

If there are technical obstacles to acting on this, don’t just stand by and say nothing can be done; use your great brains to help overcome them

This is grossly insulting to say the least. These are the organisations that ARE doing something about this issue. Compare this to the current government that has CUT the budget of CEOP, the police body that investigates such sites.

What’s the solution?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the proposal in itself. Only TalkTalk has been offering filtering up until now, which hardly gives parents a great choice if they’re not technically minded enough to offer it at a home software level. By getting all ISPs to provide it allows parents to have a greater choice. That’s good.

What’s bad and what should be done is…

  1. Ensure precise filtering is available to the customer so they can tweak what level of filtering they require. Right now we don’t even know what ISPs are going to be told to filter by the government. Rather than have to sit on a phone for ages and speak to an off-shore help desk to get any settings changed, it should be possible for parents to log into a secure website and change their specific settings themselves. These settings should include the ability for parents to overriding the filtering of specific sites or individual pages.
  2. All the ISPs taking part in this must provide a single contact point for people to report incorrecly filtered (either way) websites which will then be acted upon swiftly.
  3. Government should be “hands off” with regard to being able to dictate what is filtered and any legislation should reflect this
  4. All of this is only being applied to the major ISPs. If you use of the smaller ones then there is no need for them to apply filtering. Does that make sense to you?

As it stands, I have, and will continue to use, device level filtering, which is highly configurable and works far better than anything else currently provided.

The biggest problem though with the MPs proposals is ignorance. The MPs seem to think they know best and, particulaly, ignore advise from IT professionals about what can and can’t be done. The PM has already stated that he believes that automatically filtering should be possible by Google if only they put their heads together and thought about it a bit more.

So, on one hand we have people who work in the IT industry and say that the solution is flawed, but offering solutions. The MPs ignore this and go ahead with what the Daily Mail is shouting more viciously about. Of course, the irony of all of this is that the newspaper making the loudest noise are the ones that surely will be automatically blocked once a filter is put into place.

Photo: Choo Yut Shing