Britain's broadband censors: a bunch of students

17 Oct 2011
Web

McAfee admits that a small team of students is responsible for deciding what British broadband users can see

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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