Dear Deidre: what the hell do you know about web censorship?

19 Apr 2012

It’s hard to know where to start picking holes in the 89-page report of the Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection (PDF), which heartily recommends that ISPs should censor internet content by default. It has more of them than a golf course.

You could for example question the credentials of The Sun’s agony aunt, "Dear Deidre" Sanders as the Inquiry’s first expert witness. She thinks children should be protected from online pornography, but she’s OK with children looking at Page 3 girls because “the Editor of The Sun thinks it’s okay” and because “nine million people read it”. I’ve got news for you, Deidre: there’s a few more people on the internet.

You could question whether a survey of Mumsnet site visitors should really be used as prima facie evidence that parents are genuinely concerned about children accessing adult material, as it is on p13 of the report.  Especially given the sample size and questions asked are curiously omitted.

Chairman Claire Perry MP and her cross-party band of acolytes appear to have been seduced by TalkTalk’s network-level filter, without any serious analysis of its effectiveness

You might also question the authority of a report that claims there’s no need to come up with a new means of classifying adult content on the web, because “both Ofcom and the British Board of Film Classification have well-developed and accepted ratings of adult content” – as if a website could be judged on the same basis as Basic Instinct.  Not to mention the fact that the BBFC only has to vet a few hundred films each year, and that Google gave up counting the number of individual web pages it crawled when the number reached the hundreds of billions.

But what irritates me above all else about this call for network-level censorship of the internet is the way it writes off the legitimate concerns of Britain’s two biggest ISPs on the grounds that “their main objections appeared to be ideological, not commercial”. As if being concerned about the ethics of censoring the connections of millions of British internet users is somehow petty.

My concerns about forcing people to opt-in to see adult content are both ideological and practical. Chairman Claire Perry MP and her cross-party band of acolytes appear to have been seduced by TalkTalk’s network-level filter, without any serious analysis of its effectiveness.

TalkTalk’s HomeSafe, for example, applies blanket settings across all of your devices. Set the system to maximum security to protect the five-year-old in your home and mum and dad can’t even visit the National Lottery site. What’s more, it doesn’t stop kids looking at whatever they like via smartphone apps – it only blocks browser traffic – and obviously can’t do anything about sites they visit on their mobile once they leave the house.

Worse still, HomeSafe “works by filtering websites against a blacklist of domains,” according to TalkTalk. “That blacklist is constantly updated through daily keyword searches, manual assessment and customer feedback.” Keyword searches for terms such as “sluts”, “double penetration” or “anal sex” no doubt. All terms you’ll find in the report hosted on Claire Perry’s website.

Wouldn’t it be a terrible shame if a network-level filter inadvertently blocked Perry’s site, in order to protect the kiddywinks?

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