If you’ve somehow missed it (it’s hard to do so) a number of UK papers, along with the MP Claire Perry, are leading a converted push to get the government to bring in legislation to require ISPs to add network-level filters to block adult content. In particular they are promoting the filter system used by TalkTalk.
And that, is probably as much as we know.
Sadly, any attempts to question or poke holes in this suggestion is greeted with ignorant retorts. The thing is, this is being led by non-IT people, who don’t know the technology, what is possible and, most importantly, what they need to do to ensure it doesn’t cause further issues. Unfortunately a blinding ideal that nothing should get in the way of “protecting our children” is the most important thing.
I’ve kept quiet on this subject, whilst secretly angry at how it’s being handled, whilst fine journalists such as PC Pro are doing the prodding and questioning. However, the frustration that even they’re now feeling has meant that I feel I need to write something.
Let’s get one thing up-front here – I don’t mind the idea of a network level filter1. It’s a lot more effective than at devic
I’m looking at this as 3 different people – a parent, an IT professional and a website owner. Sadly, people such as Ms Perry are only the first.e level and, as long as it can be turned off, should provide a reasonable level of protection. Although, as PC Pro have reported, it’s certainly not foolproof. Personally, I’d like it opt-in by default as I believe that there will be a certain embarrassment felt by people having to ring to opt-out (even if it’s not for pornographic content – remember, this is an “adult” filter and it extends to more than porn), but I’m fine with it being opt-out.
As previously mentioned, these filters are fallible and may lull parents into a false sense that they no longer need to monitor their child’s internet use. This isn’t the case and nothing can replace parental responsibility.
But I mentioned before about the approach made by people such as Ms Perry when dealing with this. After PC Pro reported their investigation into TalkTalk’s filters, she responded via Twitter with “Would the responsible thing to do be to offer your enormous collective tech expertise to fix this glitch? Or want to keep jeering from the sidelines in teccie [sic] ivory towers? 86% people think its a big problem — shall we work together to sort?” Except PC Pro aren’t jeering – they genuinely want to ensure that the best approach is made, not some half-arsed attempt.
One of the other issues is precisely what they want to block – I’ll get into this more in a minute, but when PC Pro tried to get to the bottom of this they contacted Ms Perry and suggested they send her 10 URLs for her to say whether she thought they should be blocked or not. A fair request, bearing in mind that this kind of detail is not being talked about. She told them to “get a grip”.
But let’s go back to that question – what do they want to block? Adult content certainly. But to what level? Filters often don’t work on a page-by-page basis so adult material on one page of a site will often cause the whole site to be blocked. There is an irony that the Daily Mail is supporting this as such filters would, by default, almost certainly ban their site (certainly it would block The Sun site). Indeed, when I had a software filter on my daughter’s laptop I found that it blocked the whole of YouTube. Other people have reported football supports websites being blocked because one of the pages had an advert for a betting company on it.
Breastfeeding anyone? That’s the one that always causes problems – Facebook has been in trouble before by closing down pages on the subject. Who thinks that a blanket filter is intelligent enough to tell the difference between a mother breastfeeding and Page 3 of The Sun? The thing is, those behind this filtering suggestion don’t seem to know either. When asked on the radio, one of the newspaper journalists supporting it said that they thought that bare breasts were acceptable. I wonder if Ms Perry feels the same? And at what point do they become unacceptable? Covered in cream? Being sucked by an adult? And how do you filter for that?
Who makes the decision of what is morally right or wrong? At the moment it’s whoever is providing the filters. TalkTalk may have one but it’s being supplied by a third part – a third party that remains anonymous. Who are they and how do they apply the filtering? Who knows. And will any government bill give a monopoly to this one company (highly unlikely) or allow any company to do it? If the latter the government must provide guidelines to what is acceptable – guidelines that nobody seems to want to discuss.
As a parent I do like the idea of an initial filter – backed up by my own parental responsibility of course – but as a web developer it’s worrying. TalkTalk’s forums are full of people reporting incorrectly blocked websites to them, many of them were reported months ago and the sites are still blocked. If you own a website, you may be making a living from it, and it gets blocked by mistake, how do you get it unblocked? How do you know – if different ISPs are using different filters it may only be blocked but some? How long will they take? All of these questions need answering and resolving as part of any governmental bill. It will only take a few of these businesses to sue the government because it’s impacted their business before they regret not doing this.
So, here are my suggestions for considerations that need to be made…
- A clear set of guidelines for what is blocked and what is not – this can be used by the filtering companies and of use to parents. At the same time parents need to be made aware that these filters are not 100% effective.
- An ability to switch on/off separate adult categories, so if I want to be able to access online bingo sites I can, whilst still blocking pornography
- Parental guidance on how to continue to monitor children’s internet usage and use of software filters if they have to opt-out of certain aspects of the network filter (say, as before, you want to access your favourite bingo site you opt out out for gambling sites. How do you then ensure that your children don’t access these sites?)
- Provide a way for people to check if a website is blocked across all ISPs. With no consistent approach to filtering there should be, say, a site that you can go to and enter a website address – it will then tell you if any of the ISPs are blocking it. This would be particularly of use to website owners who may not be aware, for instance, that one ISP is blocking them. People should also be able to set up alerts to be sent to them if this changes.
- A single, quick way for people to report websites that are/aren’t blocked. This should be a single contact point which, when action is taken, will cause all ISPs filter’s to update.
There, Ms Perry – I hope that you see this as somebody genuinely trying to work together to sort this out. I’ll look forward to your response and agreement that all of the above will be included in any such bill.
- and for those who don’t know what this means, it means that content is filtered by your ISP before it reaches you [↩]