Useful links

The proposed UK porn filter is a threat, not a safeguard
What I am going to cover is the details of the filtering that is already in place (and has been for some time now), and the technical reasons why a filter like this will do more harm than good.
Not that porn-blocking bollocks again
Once again, the politicians have decided to enter into the “WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING! ANYTHING!” pissing contest over a race to block as much porn as possible in order to… do something involving children. The language of both sets of press quotes seems to conflate a hell of a lot of things with each other, so it’s kind of complicated unpicking exactly why they want to do each of the things they’re planning on doing.

Why the ISP porn filter is a unicorn

“I want to travel by unicorn!”
“They don’t exist”
“Someday there might be technology available to create one!”
“Um.. well, yes.. possibly..”
“So I want one now!”
“But the technology doesn’t actually exist right now”
“It should do”
“Well.. yes, maybe..”
“So get me a unicorn!”
“We can’t.”
“But you should.”
“How?”
“I don’t know, there should be experts working on it”
“There probably are”
“See? So my unicorn is possible!”
“No.. it’s potentially possible, not actually possible”
“You are just being negative”
“No, I’m being factual”
“You hate unicorns!”
“What?”
“Unicorn hater!”
“..uh…”
“You aren’t even trying to help!”
“I.. uh.. buh.. “
“Where’s ^your solution?”^
“My solution? You want the bloody unicorn, I’m happy with all the many other methods of transport”
“No, I refuse to even try other methods. A unicorn is the only solution!”
“But they don’t exist. You can’t will them into existence”
“Excuses excuses”
“It’s not an excuse, it’s reality. Look, you can have a horse*. They do exactly the same thing but without costing loads in research and implementation”
“No. Unicorn.”
“Why not a horse?”
“A unicorn just sounds better”
“But creating a unicorn could be massively flawed, the horse has evolved to where it is now. It’s does the job more than adequately”
“A unicorn might be better”
“It might. But we don’t know this for certain.”
“See, I was right. You said yourself it has some advantages”
“It has a lot of disadvantages. Oh and it’s still not possible right now. In fact it may never be possible”
“You are so negative! Wont you think of the children??”

*horse=user side filtering/supervision

Server side vs user side filters

I am not opposed to filtering the web at all. What I am opposed to is server side filtering, I think user side filtering is the best solution by far.

Here’s the issues I have with server side/ISP filtering.

Think about your cliched household, two parents, two children. Let’s say one child is 7, the other is 15. Obviously both parents are adults.

The 7 year old obviously shouldn’t have access to the same sites as the 15 year old. While the 15 year old’s parents may not want them having access to the same content that the parents want access to.

An ISP based filter does not allow you the flexibility needed in that situation. It’s either on or off. You would not be able to adapt an ISP filter dependant on who is online.

A user side filter would have that flexibility. It would also allow you to change it over time as the children grew up.

The other issue with an ISP side filter is that if one person in the household opted out of it, then they’d have opted the whole family out of it.

A user side filter wouldn’t have that issue.

The only issues I can see with a user side filter is that too many people aren’t aware they exist or how to use them. Education is key here, as is promoting access to easy to use filtering programs. Support something that works.

Blocking porn the 1984 way

I can honestly only see one way of effectively blocking porn. All of the other ways will block some but not all porn, not saving anyone from anything.

So if you wanted to block all porn the absolute only way to do this would be a whitelist. For those that don’t know what this means, it is putting together a list of approved websites and blocking access to anything not on this list.

Really good idea for computer based filters, especially for those of us with young children, I know that’s exactly what I’ll be using for my little boy once he’s old enough to use a computer. But I’m his parent, I should be controlling his access to the world. Do we want the govt to decide what websites we are allowed to access? Do you trust them enough?

What do you want from a porn filter?

Think about what you want a porn filter to achieve, I know it seems obvious at first, but properly think about it.

You want to protect children?

Noble cause, as a mother I applaud you. Do you honestly think that an ISP based porn filter will work? Let’s break it down and work it out.

For a start, let’s separate children into three categories, those who have parents who care, those who don’t and those who care but are technically illiterate. Obviously the ones who have parents who don’t care will need a little more or our help. So surely an ISP based porn filter will help? Hmm…

So working on the assumption that we are trying to help them, and their parents are lackadaisical at best (neglectful at worst). So the ISP’s block porn. Sorted right?

Well.. no.. see my previous post on the technical issues with an ISP based porn filter. There’s only one method that would absolutely 100% block all porn, and that’s white list, let’s hope that isn’t an option our darling government want.

So you still have access to porn anyway. And that’s assuming these lackadaisical/neglectful parents haven’t opted out anyway, in which case we haven’t achieved a thing have we?

On to the technically illiterates. Ok, this group I have the most sympathy for, and suspect make up the bulk of supporters for this. I get why you all support it, I really do. It must be terrifying to feel so helpless, and this must seem like a godsend! But it’s not, with the best will in the world, it’s just not.

Someone used this analogy on another site, think it’s useful.

Think of it like this. Imagine the internet is a cliff, and we are having a picnic at the top of the cliff. It’s a mostly beautiful view, but if you let your guard down, you could fall off. You wouldn’t let your child play near the edge. Installing the opt in system is like putting a strong looking but flimsy fence in place. You could be fooled in to thinking it was safe but left to their own devices your child, could easily fall through. We can’t put a brick wall there otherwise it spoils the natural beauty of the view (the educational benefits of the internet).

This porn filter won’t block all porn. It also wont block all the other harmful websites on the web (pro-ana, extreme gore and violence, self harm etc). You will still need to supervise your children, you will still need computer based filters. Without these your children are no safer than they were before the ISP porn filter.

If you are reading this then are obviously one of those who wants to be informed, you have the option to add filters. What about those parents who are expecting the porn filter to make the internet safe? They’ve been lulled into a false sense of security. They wont install filters and/or be less likely to supervise, secure in the knowledge that the government have child proofed the internet.

Here’s where there is another solution, a better one. Education. And if the government want to be more pro-active they could always provide free govt-endorsed software that everyone can download and install on their PC, software that is customisable to suit every family. You’d be able to make sure different users had different access to different information. You teenagers would be able to see different stuff to your 5 year olds. If the govt put their energy into raising awareness, education and easy access to simple filters we’d achieve a hell of a lot more.

Let’s actually try and keep children safe instead of paying lip service.

Who supports it?

A few new articles for you on the topic of ISP filtering

Linx

This article actually goes a little more into depth on SaferMedia, who are backing Ed Vaizey’s campaign.

The Telegraph

Which contains a few more interesting snippets from SaferMedia, apparently, actually caring about factual information is hysterical. An interesting viewpoint I think you’ll agree.

So these lead me to wonder a bit more about SaferMedia, so from their website we are told that their aims and objections are;

The protection of good mental and physical health, in particular of children and young people, by working in accordance with Christian values to minimise the availability of potentially harmful media content displaying violence, pornography and explicit sex, bad language and anti-social behaviour and the portrayal of drugs, and with a view to the reduction of crime

Looking at their email campaign page it also fails to mention any technical information, which is something just about all the pro-filter campaigners have in common. It’s all very well saying we should do something, but latching onto a technical impossibility rather than a technical possibility (eg. education, free software) is nonsensical.

With a company like SaferMedia as well, you have to wonder if they are too bothered about how accurate the filter is. Would it bother them to have all pages/sites about sex blocked, just because some will include porn? Or would they rather have no mention of it, even if it is information on safe sex?

It didn’t take me much digging to discover that Miranda Suit, co-founder of SaferMedia is also involved in a group called “Christian People’s Alliance” who can be read on this page telling their members to vote against the Lib Dems, why? Well, see for yourself.

Why the Christian Peoples Alliance has concerns with Nick Clegg and
the Liberal Democrats…
…whipped votes in Parliament taking away the right of some parents to take their children out of sex education classes
…whipped voted in Parliament in favour of amoral sex education lessons for five-year-olds

Hmm, so no interest in blocking any and all websites about sex for under 18′s? I think not. And yet this government, and Mumsnet, are taking them seriously.

The technical bit

I was moved to write this because the Torys have decided to get ISP’s to block porn at source. Despite it being technically, if not impossible then incredibly difficult and likely to cause more problems than it solves.

Which means it will be incredibly expensive, and let’s face it the ISP’s wont be paying extra; we will. It will also not block all inappropriate content, but will block a fair amount of innocent content. It will also mean that even those who will opt out (choosing instead the more sensible method of computer based filtering) will still have to pay.

There are many reasons why it wont work, and here are just a few.. yes, honestly, this massive post doesn’t actually cover it all.

Anatomy of a website

Domain
The domain is the address you type in.
Eg. http://www.google.com
This is actually separate to the website itself, which is why you can have multiple domain names pointed to the same site.

Say you wanted to block http://www.google.com you wouldn’t necessarily be blocking access to the website itself. As they could then just set up http://www.googleisback.com without having to change where it is hosted or reload content.

You also could block domain names with keywords in the title, say you blocked “google”, however this wouldn’t block http://www.gooogle.com – which could easily be pointed at the same site.

So that wouldn’t work for filtering websites, too easy to get around.

Hosting
A website is hosted on rented or bought server space, you could block the IP address for a server, which is what the domain name points to. This is about the only way to block websites, but requires you individually blocking each website.

An ISP provides access to the internet, whether for a user or server, some have their own servers which they host sites on. But not all do. Hosting and providing net access are two different things.

URL
Essentially the same as the domain name, but with directions to specific pages or files.
Eg. http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk

You could block specific pages within a website, either by keyword or knowing the address. However you’d have to somehow take into account embedded information;
The web standard style of coding websites nowadays usually runs along the lines of;
Main page
¬ Header
¬ Content
¬ Footer

So while you may have blocked “main page”, you haven’t blocked “header”, “content” and “footer”, and if someone was to direct link to one of them..

Meta Data
Hidden information coded into webpages, usually keywords and a description. Not all sites bother with this though.

So although you could search the meta data for keywords and block pages where the meta keywords are to be filtered, if someone hasn’t entered meta data then the computer will have no way of knowing.

HTML/Coding
Keywords could also be in the coding. This will include the text you see on the page. You could block pages with blocked keywords, however, read on to see why that is flawed.

Images
There are only two way to block images.
1) Block any images that are inserted using the [ img ] code. Which will block 99% of images. 99% of all images that is. Including the MN logo at the top of your page.
2) Block images with filtered keywords, but this has the same problem as meta data, it doesn’t have to be filled in. And the image file could be 111111.jpg. With no keyword data, you have no clue of that is a pornographic image or a pretty little flower.

There is no technology that exists that can identify what an unlabelled, generically titled image is either.

Embedded Media
Exactly the same as Images. This covers embedded video, interactive flash and audio.

Different filtering methods

Keywords
You could block keywords. But what keywords would you block for porn?

Penis? Vagina? Breast?
- there goes any website that mentions anatomy in any way, say medical websites…

Pussy?
- so no personal pages about Ginger the cat.

Porn? Erotica?
- There goes this page, and a large part of the feminism forum.

Do any of you have spam filters on your email? Does that work all of the time?
Do you ever get emails asking if you’d like to purchase v1agra?

That’s the other way to get round keyword filters, just type things wrong or leave sp aces in them. You could even add in sym|3ols.

Also, if you wanted text but didn’t want it searchable then you’d just use an image file with the text on and not label the image file. Easy.

So to summarise. You can block individual IP addresses, one by one – but hang on, how would you implement this? Who’d decide? Do you create a central agency to decide? Or do you leave it up to the public to report?

If you leave it up to the public do you immediately filter any reported sites to look at when someone gets a chance? Or do you wait? Could get a few complaints when sites aren’t removed promptly enough? Say you decide that you will only filter a site when it has a set number of complaints? What happens when a large group of internet users decide it would be amusing to all report one site at once?

And would you block the page with the content, or the whole site? What if someone posted a pornographic picture on flickr, do you filter all of flickr?

If you use keywords to block sites then you will block innocent websites.

There’s also a flaw with opting in. Say it’s a family network, (because remember, the ISP’s can’t distinguish between separate computers) and one person wants to opt in (possibly because the filter system has blocked a website which isn’t actually pornographic) then how do you protect the children?? Oh yeah, a computer based filter. One which can be set up not only for individual computers, but also for individual user accounts on one computer. So essentially despite having a hugely expensive system put in place, the one that is likely to be the most useful is the system which is already in place.

Advantages to ISP filtering

- Parents who do not take note of what their children have access to, and who do not feel the need to censor internet access, will be be over ridden therefore looking after the poor innocent children. 
Uh.. well.. maybe.. that is as long as those parents don’t then opt out of the ISP filtering..

Ok, scrap that. Let’s start again..

Advantages to ISP filtering

Well.. um.. nope, coming up blank.

Advantages to Computer based filtering

- Customisable for different users. This means that you do not have to apply the same filtering to an entire household, you don’t even have to apply it to all users on one computer. Unlike ISP side filtering, which will be on or off for all users. So you may want to access something, but not want your child to access it. Easily done with a computer filter.

- Does not slow down the internet.

- Will not add anything extra to your monthly bill

- There are already free programs out there.

Disclaimer

I can’t believe I actually need to write this, but going by previous conversations I obviously do.

I do not believe children should have access to porn, I am not upset that I would not be able to access porn.

I am however realistic about how technology works, and if someone could come up with a definitive way to stop children accessing all porn online I would support it wholeheartedly. But this isn’t it.

Why spend the money trying to make something work which is already known to be flawed, when that money could go into something which does help!

Is this really about blocking porn from kids? Because it obviously wont. You can either block all porn – by blocking basically everything, just in case. Or only some. Because if you decide the latter, what are you actually achieving?

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