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Posted on April 19th, 2012 by Barry Collins

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

Dear Deidre

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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44 Responses to “ Dear Deidre: what the hell do you know about web censorship? ”

  1. Smouldering Wick Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 9:55 am

    I believe filtering is important,(alongside discussing acceptable use with our kids) but that to be implemented effectively it needs to be done at a device level. This may be more expensive and inconvenient but I’m sure it’s more effective. Not only does the Netnanny product I use allow me to set custom profiles for different users and devices but it also lets me add (or remove) keywords and sites to the block list and review browsing history. The problem is some adult content is very hard to filter, especially images from content aggregation sites e.g. tumblr as there is no text associated with the image to filter. For filtering to be more effective the obligation needs to be on those who post or host adult content to tag or identify it in such a way that filtering is effective. There should be penalties for those who post or host adult content (and I know defining that’s a nightmare) without it being easily identified as such.

  2. Richard Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 10:04 am

    I think that filtering, whilst brilliant for protecting children is not a pacifical consideration when done at an ISP level. I am a parent, and my teenage son does research for school projects on websites that I wouldn’t want my primary school age child accessing quite yet. If the ISP blocks by key-word then there goes Wikipedia as a resource to be used in biology homework.

    Whats more worrying is that the report appears to have been written by someone who has no practical working knowledge of how the internet works. Personally, I think the government should commission Jon Honeyball to write all IT policy for the country – and what an efficient and well managed infrastructure we would then have!

  3. Tim Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 10:19 am

    There are two scenarios here. The first is children stumbling across adult sites, and the second is where they are actively looking for such sites.

    In the second case it is difficult to see an effective solution. However where children are not actively looking filtering is certainly useful if not a complete solution. Most of the population are not computer experts, and many are not even responsible parents. So requiring parents to actively set up device based is filtering is unlikely to be effective. Having the land line and mobile ISPs default to DNS filtering is far from perfect, but in my opinion better than the other options.

  4. David Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 10:50 am

    How about parents just keep track of what their kids are doing, eh? Why does it always have to be somebody else’s responsibility?

  5. Josefov Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 11:05 am

    And what happened to the ‘do your homework on a PC in the living room’ idea? As a species we’ve been evolving for the last million years and somehow managed to survive without giving every kid a bedroom laptop with 24/7 broadband. We’re not talking about what happens on the streets, in the public spaces, we’re talking private households. Why would government want to have anything to say about that?

    So, on one hand, we oppose the Muslim fundamentalism and sharia law, but on the other puritanism (since it’s ours, homegrown) is OK?

  6. JohnAHind Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 11:14 am

    The only practical solution for the child protection side of this is white-listing not black-listing. Parents need tools to restrict each of their children to sites appropriate to their stage of development (as others have stated, this means per device / account NOT at network level). Rather than the white-list being a great long list of different sites, it would usually just be a single portal site specifically curated as a walled garden appropriate to that age group.

    Perry and her gang are obviously using child protection as a lever to peruse a wider web censorship agenda. Her statement that controlling children’s web access is a parental responsibility, and parents just need the tools to do it, is inconsistent with her insistence that these tools must be “on by default”. Requiring parents to take a simple action to switch something on seems a pretty low bar to discharging parental responsibility!

    Similarly, the motivation behind the desire for network level controls rather than device level is to smuggle in censorship for adults on the back of child protection arguments.

  7. Paul Ockenden Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Yup – if you don’t trust your kids to use a PC sensibly then don’t let them use an unsupervised PC in their bedrooms! Supervision is an essential part of parenting, and shouldn’t be left to electronics.

  8. Tim Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    The unfortunate reality is that many parents fail to feed their children properly let alone supervise their internet use. The government has to set policy based on how the population as whole behaves.

    Portable devices such as tablets also make supervision much more difficult.

  9. Nick Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    I’m rather embarrassed to admit that being old fashioned I thought managing what children can and cannot do was the parent’s responsibility, not the government’s.

  10. John T Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    I think you’ve highlighted some of the absurdity (mixed with a good dollop of hypocrisy) of this debate quite nicely.

    I doubt any right-minded individual wants young children exposed to pornography, but this debate does have the feeling of hysterical shrieking over reasoned thought.

    And anyway, what of violence? Sex bad, but images and video of blooded and mutilated civilians dead and dying on the early evening news good?

    Should all news be censured, at all times of the day, because *some* parents choose to forego their responsibilities towards what their children see and do?

    As you said, I think one of the main practical problems of trying to censor at ISP level would be the utterly false sense of security it would give. And then, WHEN it fails, and *tabloid of choice* flies into a fit over an example they champion in their paper, who is liable?

    Frankly, I think we’d be better off banning smart-phones for the under 16’s…

  11. John Stag Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Kids have cellphones these days and are quite capable of making their own porn…

  12. Cellar Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    The fundamental problem I see proponents even here conveniently overlook, is the simple fact that most of us, certainly those old enough to sign up for contracts, are in fact old enough to look at whatever they like.

    Thus, applying filtering indiscriminately treats everyone, adult or not, as if they’re underage. This can have no place in a free society.

    If you are a concerned parent, then by all means do your homework, learn about filtering, deploy it yourself, buy an appliance that filters, or sign up with an ISP for a contract with filtering options, and so on, and so forth. You need no law to make it happen.

    If such things are not being offered, well, ask for them, or start your own ISP that does, or whatever. Fund it via kickstarter for all I care. This is one area where free enterprise can easily work since you can walk and take your custom elsewhere. But don’t go about treating adults as children wholesale, thanks.

    Are our politicians so stupid to fall for such easy niche-hotbutton issues that they don’t even consider whether policy, inevitably high-handed and controversial policy, is the entirely wrong vehicle that cannot possibly work well, and that better alternatives are obvious and largely already exist?

  13. Paul Milligan Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    I recently read an article on the BBC website about a young child with an IQ of 159. By the time she’s six she’ll know more about the internet than most parents (sh’ll be ahead of the commons select committee at 5and a bit).

  14. eric Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    From France
    It seems you have the same lobbies than in our country.
    what a pity more we go in the human evolution more we get censored, treaten like children and so on with super capitalistic expert thinking our well being..

    we need more Robespierre in those time of intelectual dictature !

  15. Cellar Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Tim, dear, the government can provide a fall-back for bad parenting, and indeed it does. Though it only steps in for good reason. Here, your reasoning means assuming that everyone must naturally be a bad parent and the government must step in whether you even have children or not, all because “teh intarwebz!!!1!”, and oh some people are bad parents. That just isn’t a very reasoned argument. So sorry.

  16. David Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Yeah, the Government knows best, eh? Do you seriously trust this bunch of clowns (or any of the alternatives) to act sensibly? Particularly on issues such as the internet where it’s obvious that their grasp of the situation is tenuous at best?

  17. Tim Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    The government does not provide a significant fall back for back for bad parenting. Shall we take the baby P case as an example.

    My reasoning is not that everyone is a bad parent but that there is a significant minority of bad parents. All your suggestions rather naively rely on parental action. You refer to better obvious alternatives, and yet fail to list any.

    If you want some figures. In 2011, only 53% of parents used any sort of parental control. The 47% of parents that did nothing is the reason the government is considering action.

  18. Neil Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    This is not about stopping porn. The gov are using porn as an excuse to get the technology to filter web at all passed and in place.
    Today porn. Tomorrow, anything the gov or large corps dont want you to see just because its eating into their profits, think pirate bay etc. and ultimately any small busineses that look competitive to them.

  19. dave Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    your letting them off quite lightly
    for a bunch of protect the children idiots remember this.

    The Sun and other British tabloids also provoked controversy by featuring girls as young as 16 as topless models, when it was legal to do so. Samantha Fox, Maria Whittaker, Debee Ashby, and others began their topless modelling careers in The Sun at the age of 16, while the Daily Sport was even known to count down the days until it could feature a teenage girl topless on her 16th birthday, as it did with Linsey Dawn McKenzie in 1994, amongst others. In 2003, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 raised the minimum legal age for topless modelling to 18.

  20. Craig Dunn Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Why are our kids indoors anyway? Censorship normally just causes curiousity and fear.

  21. Craig Dunn Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    and btw, I see both of Deirdre’s points….

  22. me Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    How about this for a new law? if you havnt been on the net since 1st jan 2000 you should not be allowed to use the internet. ok? just leave it to the early adopters who got called “nerds” for using it.

  23. Mike Laye Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    It also depends on what you define as ‘pornography’ in the first place. I would have (have had, as they’re all over 18 now) much less problem with my kids seeing naked humans engaging in sexual practices than I would in them imbibing the poison that The Sun and its cohorts spew out daily.

    Ignorance, racism, sexism (do we really *still* have naked female breasts in daily newspapers in 2012?), greed, envy, vilification, prurient gossip, hysterical over-reaction, hypocrisy … need I go on?

    These twisted values are assaulting our kids (and our adults) every day, thanks to the “popular press” and we’re supposed to accept that as “normal” and “acceptable”.

    Give me a healthy dose of double-penetration any day! (Well, not me, obviously, but you know what I mean!)

  24. JohnAHind Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Ironically I seem to have been censored by PCPro on this subject. I posted a substantial and entirely temperate comment at lunch time, it has not appeared yet and when I try to repost it it says “you appear to have already said that”!

    This seems to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black!

  25. Tim Irons Says:
    April 19th, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    Same here. PCPro strikes again

  26. dave Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 12:19 am

    Ah the old “won’t someone think of the children?” gambit.
    Firstly your kids? Your problem.
    Secondly why should what I access be dumbed down to the level of what won’t offend a purely notional 5 year-old?
    Bloody mumsnet has a lot to answer for, self-selected housewives seem to be the most regarded group these days. Someone should have the guts to tell them that their views are no more important, and should carry no more weight than anyone else

  27. Barry Collins Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Nobody’s censoring comments, John A Hind. Your earlier comment got trapped in our spam filter, which is why it didn’t show on the site.

    If we switched the spam filter off, around 4,500 junk comments would be on stories this week alone, so I’m afraid it’s a necessary evil.

    Barry Collins

  28. Tim Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Part of the government’s job is to think of the children. Currently Only half of parents take any action to control their children’s internet access. They may or may not decide to act, but they should certainly consider the situation.

    As to your internet access, all you would have to do is ask and your access would not be “dumbed down”. No one is proposing mandatory filtering. This is a service offered by most ISPs anyway, and the proposition is to change the default setting. In all likelyhood the time you have spent writing your post would be sufficient to turn the filtering off.

    As to whose views have most weight that is down to the government and those who elect them. Someone will always disagree whatever the government does.

  29. Tim Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 10:18 am

    Fair enough.

  30. JohnAHind Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 10:34 am

    And it’s happened again. I do not mind spam filtering as long as it’s vaguely competent!

    Perhaps if I say ’spam’ often enough the dumb robot will realise I must be human … spam, spam, spam, spam!

    Or maybe some bloody f***ing intemperate language will do the trick! Seems to work for others!

  31. JohnAHind Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 10:38 am

    Huzzah! It worked!
    Seems only cogent, intelligent comment triggers the spam filter!

  32. Stefan Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 11:05 am

    The key here is who is to say what is appropriate for what age group. You can’t just say “adult content” or stop all pages with “blue breasted boobie”. And remember you also have to stop all pages discussing how to circumvent the filter..

  33. Tim Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 11:18 am

    The proposed filtering is really only aimed at younger children. Stopping teenagers is clearly hopeless.

  34. wittgenfrog Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    “Hmmm, your comment seems a bit spammy. We’re not real big on spam around here.

    Please go back and try again. ”

    I see you’ve got the same technology as Dierdre!

  35. wittgenfrog Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    There are problems with both how you define ‘ponography’ and with the technology of ‘blocking’ it.

    As a simple ‘frinstance my old dutch is a teacher in East London, where there are lots of Muslims. To many of these Muslim parents , even using line-drawings to illustrate various points in the Science curriculum is ‘pornography’.
    Other religious groups (LIFE for instance) have similar, but differnt views, whilst many others are much more ‘liberal’. One man (or woman)’s ‘porn’ is another wo\man’s ‘educational diagram’.

    But let’s put that to one side and assume we can agree what ‘porn’ is, we’re still stuck, becuase any centrailsed (ISP \ National level) system will generate both false positives (the ‘Scunthorpe’ effect) and leave easily navigated loopholes (as exploited regularly by paedophiles).

    In truth if you don’t want your kids to ‘access’ porn, take responsibility.
    Kids are curious about Sex and will find ways to find-out about it, but parents can ensure that their investigations are ‘controlled’.
    We did and whilst I’m sure both got to see some, it wasn’t by ‘accident’, and it wasn’t sufficient to have too many bad effects.

  36. wittgenfrog Says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    POSTED in 2Parts to confound the ‘Spam Filter’
    On a slight tangent, but it is related, events in Norway have shown that the Internet and PC are dangerous tools in the wrong hands.
    But ultimately what is (largely) harmless to one person can bet horribly destructive to another.

    Violent computer games are on the same nasty continuum as porn videos of perverse, violent sex. The former are part of a repectable multi-billion dollar business from which governments make money, and so are relattively’immune’ to interference. The latter are largely more ‘underground’ and therefore ‘fair game’ for the self-appointed moralists.

    It will always really be parents who are responsible for what their offspring see and do online, and for mediataing \ mitigating the impact of that on them. The State has a role in trying to criminalise \ prevent exploitation, but not in blocking ‘leagal’ materials that ‘might’cause harm.

  37. Yeah Says:
    April 23rd, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    “If you want some figures. In 2011, only 53% of parents used any sort of parental control. The 47% of parents that did nothing is the reason the government is considering action.”

    These figures aren’t necessarily reflective of the whole story. Of the 47% who answered that they do not use any parental controls, how many used non-technical parental controls, i.e. supervision, PC-usage limited by time/location etc as opposed to software-based controls?

  38. Tim Says:
    April 23rd, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    I suspect surprisingly few. It would make sense that the parents who keep an eye on their children are the ones most likely to install filtering to avoid accidental search results etc.

    Incidentally the government proposal is only to ask new users whether they want filtering turned on.

  39. Paul C Says:
    April 25th, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Strange that the government wants to censor the internet because it thinks parents are too stupid and lazy to take care of their children but incongruously allows such people to vote in general elections. Or perhaps they intend to withdraw that right too?

  40. Pintcrusher Says:
    April 26th, 2012 at 6:57 am

    The Three fone seller has blocked access to “adult” sites for some time but will let you see them for a small fee if you pay by credit card. That should keep the spotty, young teens from being corrupted. NOW Three have, without notice, blocked access to any site related to “torrents”. I wonder what else they are preventing their “smartfone” users from accessing. Anyone had any problems with Three?

  41. Ben Benson Says:
    April 27th, 2012 at 8:16 am

    The Talk Talk filter is easily bypassed by a 14 year old kid that wants to. The filter is all presentation without substance, easy to convince those ignorant enough to believe it. Using a list is downright criminal, and would have to be so long as impractical. What about the other social media sites that are easily accessed and closed user groups many of which are children setup. Some of these areas are even worse but totally hidden. Site encourage children to put up embarrassing pictures many of which are pornographic in nature, many of drunk youngsters.
    Commercial pornography should all have a fixed ending to the domain name but instead of .com make it .PORN then a filter would work well, but trying to get this level of co-op across the globe would be nigh on impossible. But thinking of what pornography is leads us to graphic / video base viewing. Flesh colour being predominant there are already filters for blocking colours if you have a picture which is mainly flesh then it gets blocked. Not infallible but it is a start.

  42. Ron Graves Says:
    April 27th, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    April 19th, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Trouble is, Tim, what you’re talking about here is NOT the population as a whole, which for the most part manages parenting pretty well. What you’re really referring to is the lowest common denominator – utterly clueless or deliberately neglectful parents – and the LCD is never a good basis for legislation.

    If this comes to pass, I’ll be among the first to sign up. Not because of any specific interest in online porn, but because I will not submit to censorship.

    Mind you, I suspect it will be a very short time before those of us who do sign up, even for the best of reasons, find ourselves on some sort of perverts watch list!

  43. colin robinson Says:
    May 3rd, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Re deirdre- Government policy influenced by news international??? Surely not!

  44. Nigel N Says:
    May 3rd, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Whilst it is very easy to say that filtering will be optional, only apply to new contracts, and only there to protect the children, we will still be left with a simple question every time we change our ISP contract:

    “Are you a dirty old man, sir, or will you be happy if the content filter is left in place?”


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