Opinion

Web filters: Bunk and baloney

One of the problems with the UK (and other countries, I am sure, but I have only personal experience of the UK) is that we are a country run by people whose main qualification for the job is a desire for power and a nice haircut. Many of our MPs went into politics straight from passing their Political Science (!) or Economics degree, with no real world in anything other than the accumulation of bits of paper.

Ordinarily, this doesn't matter. Economic policy is usually left to people who at least have done an accountancy degree, and history would suggest that whatever policies are laid in place, the economy ends up being universally awful and its blamed on "Economic factors beyond the governments control". The vast majority of tinkering with the law has as little effect too, aside from the unfortunate unintended effects on unrelated groups of people trying to carry out their legitimate everyday business.

But when the government turns its mind to technology, we need to worry. Aside from the governments spectacular failure to deliver IT systems with or without ridiculous overspend, there has been a rising pressure to use computers to spy on us and make sure we are behaving ourselves.

The biggest problem the government faces, is that they will insist on making decisions on matters they know nothing about, based on "advice" from experts whose independence is not certain, but more so from pressure from the media, like the long running campaign from the Daily Mail and others to have "the internet filtered for porn" - for pity's sake, won't somebody think of the children????

The underlying assumption is that the internet is something like TV and its content can be monitored and infringement enforced by blocking. Unfortunately, it is not. Anyone can set up a website, on any computer anywhere in the world. Hundreds of thousands of websites are created every week. Fortunately, most of them are disgruntled teenagers who find facebook an insufficient channel for the outpourings of daily angst against the travesty that is their life, or people who like cat pictures. A sizable proportion of these, however, also contain Malware and porn. Thats thousands of new sites every day.

So there are a number of issues that need addressing:

What constitutes porn?
Since the first "obscene publications act" in 1857 legislators have been trying to define what exactly "porn" is. Its actually hard to define precisely what is pornagraphic and what is art. On top of that, the definition varies from individual to individual - to some a naked breast is of no concern, to others (often with stron religious convictions) a bare leg is cause for alarm. Where do you set the limit? How many nipples are too many? Which body parts are taboo?
Who decides what sites are/are not pornographic?
Given that THOUSANDS of websites are created every day, and given that the definition of porn is very vague, where are the armies of people hunting down and banning sites coming from. Automatic filters based on criteria matching are notoriously unreliable. One commercial internet filter blocked many porn sites... but not if they where in a foreign language and it also wiped out the websites that mention places like "Essex" and "Scunthorpe" containing the searched-for keywords.
How can we guarantee there wont be "Scope creep"?
Why stop at blocking porn? There is already talk of blocking sites that hold radical and extreme views - what about libel, slander, or political views contrary to the prevailing government? To suggest this wont be used for that is to be naive - just look at the way councils have been using anti-terrorism legislation to snoop on wheelie-bin misusers and parking scoundrels.
The false sense of security.
Given that web filters are largely ineffective, that will not deter people from leaving their children even more vulnerable because they believe they must be effective. After all, the government and the Daily Mail say they are! And when they prove not to be, that will be the government's fault and pressure will be on them to expand the scope to include more and more of the internet. Likewise the definition of "Radical" will get expanded until it includes any dissent. But still it will not protect the children or stop extremism, but it will put more power over what we can read and say into the hands of power-hungry politicians.
Unintended side effects.
The majority of sites with "soft porn" will get filtered out, while the more extreme ones will get a new audience who currently don't feel the need to look hard enough to find it. If you can't get girlie pics by typing "boobs" into Google, where do you think kids will go to look? To some extent the sheer mass of "soft porn" hides and obscures the more extreme stuff.
Does it solve the problem?
This is the $1,000,000 question - and the answer is NO. The only sure way that parents can be sure their kids are safe online is to supervise them. Just like they do when they are at large in the outside world. Let me say that again, in case you missed it:

The only sure way that parents can be sure their kids are safe online is to supervise them.

The problem with this is that it involves doing actual parenting, rather than allowing the TV or Internet to do it for them. Have the internet connected computer in the living room, where you can keep an eye on what they are doing, and to whom they are chatting. Only give them internet connected tablets or phones when they are trustworthy enough to use them without corrupting themselves. And remember that for centuries 90% of people have seen risque pictures in their teens, and society is no more or less corrupt than it was in the Victorian era.

Porn is not the problem. Children find ways of seeing porn because its a natural desire.

People don't get radicalized because they read a website. They get radicalized because they feel marginalised and ambitious people exploit that need to be included. We had terrorists long before the internet.

Update

(Emphasis is generally mine and not in the linked articles).

BT changes wording of education filter after complaints - The Register
"Broadband providers such as BT are now similarly categorising different types of contents for a variety of filtering options for parents. All the while, the telcos are quietly mumbling that such a system is a bit rubbish and really, ultimately, it's up to parents to be responsible for educating kids about the dangers that might lurk online."
Web filters are 'not stopping porn' - The Times
"An investigation by Newsnight found that controls introduced by three of the biggest internet service providers — BT, TalkTalk and BSkyB — also failed to filter out some pornographic sites."
A quick guide to Cameron's default Internet filters - The Open Rights Group

"ORG's found that mobile operators regularly block websites that shouldn't be blocked. Sites that have been blocked by mistake include church websites because they mention wine, shops selling tobacco pipes, political blogs miscategorised as hate speech, lingerie shops for no clear reason and many more.

[snip]

People should be asked to make an active and informed choice about what sorts of websites devices in their household can visit. This means that the boxes to choose which filters to turn on should not be pre-ticked and there should be real transparency about which sites the filters would block.

The Governent should ensure parents are aware that turning filters on does not immediately make the Internet safe. Government should also encourage parents to talk to their children about what they do online and offline.

The Government hasn't done enough to encourage and promote easy-to-use device-based filters.

There are also concerns that people will find it harder to access crucial advice on sexual health, sexuality and relationships as these sites may be mistakenly blocked."

Version 3 updated 23 Dec 2013, 1:56 p.m.