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Britain's broadband censors: a bunch of students


By Nicole Kobie

Posted on 17 Oct 2011 at 10:19

A small team of students decides what content should be blacklisted by several of Britain's leading ISPs, McAfee has admitted.

McAfee creates blacklists of online content, categorising sites into pornography, gambling or 30 other definitions, in order to let ISPs block them.

BT and Sky use McAfee's lists for their parental controls, which a new Government-sponsored code of conduct requires them to offer to all customers. The system is already used by tens of thousands of users around the world, McAfee said.

However, there's no way to view the list of sites that are blocked and appeals are at the discretion of McAfee, meaning incorrectly categorised sites could be wrongfully blocked. And, despite the inherent subjectivity in labelling pornography and the like, the categorisation of such websites is left to a small team with little training.

Drawing the line between erotic and hardcore pornography is probably the most difficult

The overall process is mostly automated, with McAfee's system looking for keywords on a site to classify it. "We have crawlers that try to classify websites automatically," Toralv Dirro, a security strategist at McAfee's Avert labs told PC Pro. "If there’s any doubt, we do have a team of people that take a look at a website and correct a classification if it’s necessary.”

The team also looks at more sensitive subjects, such as pornography. “In those cases, it takes a human to take a look at it, to figure out if it’s more hardcore or if it’s more of an erotic website – that’s really something that automation couldn’t do reliably.”

Rating team

The team responsible for covering McAfee's customers worldwide is made up of between five to ten people. "I think it’s a fairly popular job for students," Dirro said. "The training is basically going through a number of websites and the various ratings so they get a basic idea. I’m not quite sure how exactly they work, but it would normally be one person who does a rating and one person who double checks it."

“You could probably start rating websites after one day of seeing various categories," he said. "It’s really not that difficult.”

However, he admits the very sites the small team is asked to judge are those that are the most subjective. “Drawing the line between erotic and hardcore pornography is probably the most difficult," he said. "Another thing is websites that go into extreme left or right side [politically], but still do news or something like that."

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User comments

Students classifying dubious websites

Poachers turned gamekeepers?

By JohnGray7581 on 17 Oct 2011

Hell of a summer job!

Nice work if you can get it.

By Lacrobat on 17 Oct 2011


“Drawing the line between erotic and hardcore pornography is probably the most difficult,"

"I think it’s a fairly popular job for students,"

No s**t Sherlock... lol

By Terrier on 17 Oct 2011

Political censorship

So students with a day's training are going to decide that a site is too far to the left or right politically for me to see.

By c_webb31 on 17 Oct 2011

Students & porn?

Hmmm,a bunch of testosterone-fuelled kids who have left home for the first time and are being let loose on hardcore porn sites... Bet they're loving it!!

I wonder if McAfee have shares in Kleenex as well as keyboard/screen manufacturers?! I'm sure they have special medical care for anyone complaining of RSI too... ;^)

Reminds me of when I lived in the Middle East 30 years ago as a kid - when you entered Riyadh you had all your belongings (suitcases, etc.) examined (read turned upside down) for any "unsuitable material" that was forbidden in the country.

Any videos were confiscated and then returned a few days later with the "inappropriate" parts censored.

The censorship team? 2 guys in a video booth getting their rocks off at whatever was passing through their mitts - all in the name of "not corrupting the Saudi population".

Bless their (sticky) little cotton socks...

By mrmmm on 17 Oct 2011


So where do I send my application form...

By anthonysjones on 17 Oct 2011

Serious business

Student volunteers welcome from madrassas, seminaries,for instance?

Are there any ISPs who do not practice censorship at all?

By antonni on 20 Oct 2011

Beware the Mary Whitehouse brigade

I appreciate the need to prevent kids being exposed to inappropriate material, but I cannot countenance adult censorship, which is basically one bunch of adults deciding what the rest of us adults can safely be exposed to. In this case, the censors are barely adult themselves! So far it is only "classification", but we need to be especially vigilant that this is not the first stage to web censorship by special interest groups, such as 'Mediawatch-uk' (formerly the National Viewers' & Listeners' Association, led by Mary Whitehouse).

By kinverdavis on 20 Oct 2011

The whole issue of sexuality ,porn, and what is or isn't appropriate is so subjective that I doubt that anyone can make a dispassionate judgement. This Nanny State will be like Saudi if we continue on this tack!

By novice8 on 20 Oct 2011

Hold on

I think several people need to reread the article. The list is used for optional parental controls not to censor everyone's internet.

By leighwill on 20 Oct 2011

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