Internet blocking will still not protect our children
Representing the target demographic for the Department of Education consultation on default online blocking of adult content, Ryan Cartwright is a Christian, a parent and an IT professional – and he has five reasons why network level blocking is a terrible and ineffective idea.
Image: Bubble Reflection Cards CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: Fellowship of the Rich
The government is holding a consultation for a proposed new law which it says will protect children using the internet. This proposal follows a campaign which I first came across in February 2012. It is called “SafetyNet” and is being run by Premier Christian Media and SaferMedia. The campaign, and now the consultation is about requiring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to “[block] pornography and other content at network level whilst giving adults a choice to ‘opt-in’ to this content”.
The consultation is fairly loaded and appears based upon the “facts” purported by the campaign. As far as I am concerned facts are facts. If a USA survey says “1 in 3 10 year olds have accessed pornography online”, I’m not going to argue.
I’m not altogether sure why 73% of UK households having internet access adds to the problem but I don’t doubt the figure is correct. What concerns me are the conclusions drawn and the way they are presented in the consultation document.
Perhaps I should introduce why I feel I can write about this. I am a UK Christian parent (so therefore fit neatly in the target demographic for the campaign), my children are between 5 and 9 years old and thus are well within the group the proposed law seeks to “protect”. I am also someone who works with and understands the “network level” Internet this consultation talks about.
I have been building and hosting webservers and websites since the mid 1990s and I still do. So I am fairly and squarely in the target demographic for the campaign, consultation and the proposed law. I would add I am also one of the people who understands the technology involved and by the sound of it I understand it better than those running the campaign or making the proposal.
Why this won’t work
The campaign calls for ISPs to “block pornography” at “network level”; the consultation expands this into two options. Firstly a universal switch which enables or disables blocking for the internet connection and, secondly, an array of questions which apparently will allow the parent to decide which types of content are permitted or not permitted through the same connection.
The wording is phrased as if this filtering can be decided on a per user basis rather than a per connection basis, but the type of filtering they are describing cannot be managed in that way. In brief the both types of filtering they are proposing are unworkable and dangerous. I’ll focus on pornography here because that is the main thrust of the campaign but the same points can be applied to other content types.
How do you define “pornography”?
You can’t (as the campaign does) try to get away with a dictionary definition because we are dealing with parents here who may well have their own idea of what is appropriate for their child to view. Limiting it to just ‘the explicit representation of sexual activity’ may not be enough.
As an example, if that were all that was being blocked, I still would need to check what my 8 year old was stumbling across on Google images - at which point the “protection” is not coming from the blocking, but from me. Additionally who decides what content fits into what category and what level of “risk” there is?
One parent may consider it perfectly acceptable for their child to see a scantily clad woman in a provocative pose, another may not and yet both would expect such a filtering service to meet their needs. It can’t. To be honest if it did have such a feature I could not see many taking advantage of it because it would be what a friend of mine refers to a “too much of a faff”.
How do the ISPs determine what gets blocked?
Certain websites will be obvious by their name/domain but is the government really so naive as to expect the site owners to be scrupulous in what they call their websites? Also what of images and content provided through otherwise innocent websites?
Google images for example has a safesearch option. Set that to “off” and your child will get a bit of surprise. But as the images are hosted and served by Google, the ISP cannot block them. So using the vaunted “network level” blocking, the explicit images can still be viewed. Other sites will be similar.
In the end the only way for an ISP to properly block explicit content is to do it on an image-by-image, video-by-video basis. To do that they’d have to either rely on peer reviews which are inherently slow to react or they’d need to employ people to check and grade the content.
Now I’m not an employment law expert but I’m pretty sure that an ISP employing somebody to view possibly illegal, often offensive and probably explicit material every day would be opening themselves up to legal consequences they could do without. This is something I cannot see any ISP being able to do properly. How long would it take before a parent brings an action against an ISP because their child was exposed to some piece of content which slipped through the filter?
Filtering does not work.
Anyone who uses filtering or blocking software will tell you that things slip through. Don’t believe me: how about your email spam filters? If they are so good why are you still suspicious of links in emails you weren’t expecting? If you are not suspicious, you should be.
Network level blocking means blocking sites and images before they get to your house. Such things already exist. I use a free (and very good) service called OpenDNS which – among others things – allows me to have it block websites that either declare themselves as “adult” or have been reported as such by other users of the service. Such sites are blocked before they even get down my phoneline. So this is pretty much what is being proposed here. It doesn’t work.
Well that’s not true, it does work, just not 100%. Google images is not blocked and other sites which have mixed content are not always blocked. If my daughter searches for “girls bedroom posters” on Google images with safesearch on “moderate” (the default setting by the way) she gets images which are possibly not what she was after. Filters can of course be too aggressive, such as the one I heard of recently which blocked access to the Essex Radio website (and presumably Sussex and Middlesex too). Lord knows what it makes of Scunthorpe.
The point again is that even with Google images safesearch on strict and OpenDNS I still have to monitor what my children surf. The main “protection” for my children comes from me, not any blocking software.
It’s all or nothing
The consultation allows for the fact that adults can request the ISP blocking is switched off either entirely or by specifying types of content. This sounds fine as long as all the adults use one connection and all the children use another. But that’s not how the world is. Those 73% of UK households with Internet access probably have a single main connection for each. Many of them have a mixed range of ages using the Internet.
So if a parent wants the blocking switched off, the child gets it switched off too. ISP blocking at “network level” is by definition all-or-nothing. Now you may argue that parents should not be watching such content if they have kids. But I’ll wager they do and if they have the blocking turned off, the children the proposed law seeks to protect are no longer protected.
It gives a false sense of security to parents
You’ll have gathered by now that this is my main point. The campaign raises concerns which all parents whose children have Internet access should consider. But the solution offered by the proposed law and consultation is poorly thought through.
As you have seen above, ISP blocking will still require a parent to monitor what their kids are surfing. This is good and I wholeheartedly agree that a parent/guardian is the best protection for children online. But what worries me is that this ISP blocking idea would cause a lot of parents to stop paying attention (or pay less of it) to what their children are doing online.
Let’s revisit the anti-virus analogy. Anyone running a Microsoft Windows PC should run anti-virus software, that is a given. But just having it there does not mean you will be “safe” from malware, phishing or other nasties. Ask anyone who supports Windows PCs and they will tell you that you are only as good as your last update. It’s the same with blocking or filtering. It does the best it can under the circumstances but it’s flawed.
It’s been suggested to me that I am not actually the type of parent this is aimed at. It’s a compliment to be considered so and there are parents out there who do not pay attention to what their children are doing online. The problem is that if that is the target market aren’t they exactly the ones who will presume this filtering alleviates them of any further concern to their child’s online activity? Doesn’t that put their children at greater risk? I’m not convinced that inadequate, impractical and unworkable filtering is a solution.
In the end, as shown above, ISP blocking would still require a parent to monitor their child’s online activity. That means the blocking is next to useless. Even if you presume it will help or do some of the job for you, you still run the significant risk that your child will find an image, video or site that you’d rather they didn’t.
As a Christian parent you might expect me to support this campaign, but I just can’t. I do believe that my children should not be exposed to certain types of material until such a time as they are ready to understand it, but I do not believe this is the way to achieve that.
The SafetyNet campaign might have the safety and protection of children at its heart but its using the wrong tactics. We do not need scaremongering, knee-jerk reactions based on shaky “evidence” and headline-grabbing phrasing. The government may use rhetoric which says it is trying to protect our children but the consultation is loaded and ill-thought out. Such a law, if passed, would not protect children any more than an 18 certificate on a DVD does. Educate parents, get them to speak to their kids, help them. Don’t make laws which would have a worse effect if passed.
What can we do
The Open Rights Group has provided ways to write to your MP on this matter. In addition if you are a parent or business involved in Internet Services you can take part in the government consultation. The closing date for the consultation is 6 September 2012.
Ryan Cartwright is a Christian and father of two. He works as a web developer and has been developing and hosting websites since 1996. A keen advocate of freedom he is evangelistic about and writes Free Software. He is a regular columnist (and sometime cartoonist) to Free Software Magazine (http://www.freesoftwaremagazine.com/poster/8833) and runs two websites of his own: Crimperman.org which a personal blog and Equitasit.co.uk which is for his web development work. You can find him on Identi.ca and Twitter as @crimperman.
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Sep 04, 2012 at 01:13 PM
Quite often, the blocking software used in schools is not just to eliminate porn, but also sites with Pagan and/or "occult" material; sites which express political views that are deemed inappropriate, and so on. I do not think that this is acceptable. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion should apply here.
Sep 04, 2012 at 03:39 PM
Thanks for your comment. I was wondering if you could direct me to more information on blocking of pagan sites at schools? I would very much like to have more information and evidence on what is restricted on school filters.
Sep 05, 2012 at 04:48 PM
There are better solutions on the way, designed for use by typical parents, the people who should be deciding what is suitable for their child.
I'm biased, of course, as the designer of these solutions, but we are sure we have a way completely protect the youngest children (>99.999% safety) while allowing older children greater degrees of freedom depending on age and parental judgement, and even more access for parents and other adults. Far better than a one-size fits all approach that excludes individual parental input.
Sep 05, 2012 at 04:53 PM
And in the interest of the facts regarding the 1 in 3 10 year olds:
http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/home/2012/09/a-serious-debate.html (not a fact, an anecdote based on asking a non-representative group of older children how old they were when they first encountered pornographic images online...)
Sep 06, 2012 at 08:18 AM
In my experience the adult-content filters used on mobile phones just do not work.
And it seems that in order to function in the normal world households will (unless the ISP filters and procedures to deal with over blocked sites are considerable better than that of mobile phones) need to turn off parental controls in order to function properly and access sites.
My particular area of concern is parenting and maternity websites. Three currently blocks a random assortment of parenting websites, whilst not blocking the majority of similar sites. And block a substantial number of sites about maternity services ( estimated half of independent midwife websites are blocked).
I do not consider these adult content. And at a household level they are the very sites that parents should be able to access. But the filter blocks them, and there is no way to get them unblocked in a timely manner (or even find out what is wrongly blocked).
On the other hand if Three considers them adult-content and the blocking is intentional - then the filter is still not fit for purpose as many similar sites are not blocked.