Web Blocking in the UK

An internet safe for kids, plebs and Tories

The phone companies’ Tory inspired “safe content” filters are coming online. While the road to and strong arming of the ISPs into voluntary agreement was well covered over the summer, although not be me, it seemed the Surveillance stories were more important, the New Statesman in an article published last week by Martin Robbins, entitled “Cameron’s internet filter goes far beyond porn – and that was always the plan” shows the bleeding obvious that it’s not possible to build “safe” filters for other people. The article has provoked some noise on twitter since these privately implemented filters are a non-accountable overreach, there is no appeal, no democratic oversight and they are implemented using crude ineffective technology which reinforces such overreach. Taken in conjunction with the Gagging Bill, also known as the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill currently going through Parliament, this should be seen as an attack on our democratic systems in that it will deprive citizens of the information and evidence that they need to vote.

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Robbins’ article is sub titled,

Through secretive negotiations with ISPs, the coalition has divided the internet into ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ categories and cut people off from huge swathes of it at the stroke of a key.

Possibly a bit dramatic but Robbins illustrates the comprehensive nature of the implemented filters showing that Childline and the Samaritans sites are blocked by O2 who at least have the will to transparency to provide a checker, which is currently offline, possibly due to over use. He makes the point by quoting Adrian Short that there are some sites that should never be blocked. The problem is that this polemic is still playing on their turf; it almost assumes that the filters are wrong because they don’t protect children. The filters are wrong because they are over reaching.

Additional illustrations of the catastrophic effect of over-blocking, and the way it bleeds from smut to politics is that O2’s filters as configured earlier this month also block the British Library, Parliament and many MP’s web sites, including the site of Claire Perry MP, the prime cheerleader for the campaign for network blocking and Cameron’s personal advisor on preventing the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. The Indy reports on O2’s announcement that it is changing its filters to be more sensitive; good!

The British Library is, one of the three British Libraries of record; Google hasn’t taken on that role yet and shouldn’t. It’s one of the disgraceful pieces of public policy that within the domains of culture and news, Tory governments have promoted the right of private businesses to make money ahead of long held public sector duties to inform by placing commercial and competitive restrictions on the public sector institutions such as the Met. Office, the BBC and the British Library.

The fact is that it is almost impossible to distinguish between proponents of criminal activity and their opponents and the politics, discussion and debate that determines society’s view on what is criminal and what is not! The Government have been told; we can only assume that they don’t care.

There has been no parliamentary debate, or at least none in the context of making a law. This has been implemented by secret talks between the Government and the ISPs, cheered on by Ms Perry MP and the Daily Mail. It is an interesting comparison to see the lengths that the Tory led government go to ensure that politicians can’t control what’s published in Newspapers but can control what’s accessed over the internet. No-one in Government is trying to stop the Sun’s page 3 pictures nor the Daily Mail’s #sidebarofshame. It would be hypocrisy if it wasn’t about power.

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Over-blocking

The response of the broadband only ISPs and the mobile phone companies is historically different. It’s one of the reasons that O2, as a mobile company, are in the firing line, but the issue of how to tell what should be restricted has existed for ever; certainly the mobile phone companies have offered phones with filtering turned on and I have heard senior Orange spokesman criticised for this due to the evidence of age and identity required to turn the filters off. I have also heard them asking for help in discriminating between porn and glamour, but I don’t think the politicians want a crowd sourced answer. (This is important since they seem to ignore the fact that the fundamental source of Google’s search engine sort order is a crowd sourced vote, although Google have repeatedly had to assert that the sort order is an editorial decision and protected by free speech laws and rights.)

A second source of over-blocking is that the ISPs, block sites, not content. They use DNS name blocking, which itself has a number of problems. For instance TalkTalk have been accused of blocking wordpress.com; one of the largest collective blog sites in the world; an act with a large “collateral damage” impact. Site blocking will always cause collateral damage which means someone’s freedom to publish, or someone’s freedom to receive information will be diminished.

This mechanism is also likely to become the arena of commercial competition as rich corporations, or maybe even political parties seek to damage and restrict their competitors by classifying their web sites and advertising material as somehow required to be restricted.

DNS blocking also leads to a massive game of whack-a-mole if the publishers decided to change DNS name which is what wikileaks and the piratebay did when attacked through the DNS system. DNS blocking can easily be circumvented using Virtual Private Networks and overseas hosted web proxy servers.

A question of taste

BT have no mobile phone offering, and they have offered parental controls for a long time. They also publish their definitions and classification of their reasons for restricting content. BT is largest broadband provider in the UK, supplying about 50% more then SKY & Virgin (see below) so it’s helpful that we can examine the classification taxonomy of their controls. These classifications include Porn and Nudity (2 separate classes), Drugs and Alcohol & Tobacco (2 classes), Hate & Self Harm (1 class), Weapons & Violence (1 class, includes suicide) and Obscene & Tasteless (1 class which despite having a separate weapons & violence category includes the prohibition on bomb making material and also includes the prohibition on sites dealing with the illegal manipulation of electronic devices, hacking, fraud and illegal distribution of software; how are these Obscene and Tasteless). BT define Obscene and Tasteless as follows,

This category will block sites that offer advice on how to commit illegal or criminal activities, or to avoid detection. These can include how to commit murder, build bombs, pick locks, etc. Sites with information about illegal manipulation of electronic devices, hacking, fraud and illegal distribution of software will be blocked along with content that may be offensive or tasteless such as bathroom humour, or gruesome or even frightening content such as shocking depictions of blood or wounds, or cruel animal treatment.

It must be admitted that the large list allows a granular approach to decision making and may even be useful for small & medium businesses looking to implement data leakage prevention programs or to stop free-loaders using guest WiFi facilities. To my mind the BT list justifies the New Statesman headline, but it’s not designed to be comprehensibly applied, however, it’s hard to see how a liberal adult seeking to be a well informed citizen can apply any of the filters as each and every category is too widely drawn. I for one would appreciate help in avoiding some of the nasty stuff that’s out there, but I am certain that this scheme won’t help me which is why I have turned parental controls of on every device in the house.

There can be little doubt that each class is too broad and one really has to question a category called “Tasteless”. Are we really trying to prohibit nob and fart jokes? In all seriousness, how do we create a public consensus on what is good taste? The difficulty in answering this question is one reason that our predecessors invented free speech rights.

Protect thyself

Alec Muffett raises the important question as to how to distinguish between between hacking and IT security; it’s really hard but since the Britain’s spies, secret police and many corporations don’t want ordinary citizens to be equipped to protect their privacy over-blocking on IT security is not really a problem for the rich and powerful. It should be for the rest of us. The collection of material which proposes and abets the commission of crime, with IT security material and nob & fart gags is quite bizarre. Douglas Rushkoff in much of his work, which can be summarised in his book title, “Program or be Programmed” is clear that citizens need software knowledge to act as citizens in the digital age. This includes, if not starts with IT Security and coding.

Black ink in a dark room

So in the UK, we now have a “voluntary” code such that Internet content Filtering is now a tri-partite process. The ISP customers must decide to opt out of filtering or decide which categories they wish to restrict. We have seen that this can be quite complex, although my experience of the mobile phone companies is that the decision is less granular than that described above; with them you can have adult content on or off. (The comments on Muffett’s post discuss O2’s categorisation. The second party is the ISP, which builds a classification taxonomy and implements the site blocking measures. The third party is the organisation that decides that a web site publisher’s site falls into one of the ISPs “adult”, “porn” or other restricted classifications. BT have out sourced this to a 3rd party that as at this point they have declined to name.

This third part of the UK’s censorship regime is shrouded in secrecy and thus prohibits natural justice, there’s no published decisions, only O2 allow inspection and it would seem no appeal. It is this secret blacklisting that is at the centre of the justified furore. These measures deny people their freedom of speech, and their freedom to receive information.

Small steps and Monopoly

Is this really so bad? It’s only making the parental controls opt-out as opposed to opt-in?

The two problems are the demonisation of content and sites and the consequent chilling effects that these schemes have together with monopoly supply. The broad reach of the classes of information deemed desirably restricted is nearly everything. We have seen prosecutions use evidence initially collected for national security and take the route from via child protection to fraud, tax avoidance and copyright infringement; once we take into account the massive amount of CCTV in the UK, we’ll be using internet scale and programmatic discovery for the most trivial of offences and prohibitions.

The second problem is the monopoly supply of domestic broadband connections. The table below shows the market share of the five top providers according to Think Broadband.

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UK Broadband Market share in Sep 2013. Source: Think Broadband.

We are (nearly) all  dependent on these top four providers four our internet connectivity.  Perhaps we should look at breaking up the broadband providers, or legalising peer-to-peer access gateways. The first stage to this latter solution is the use of TOR but the ISPs either prohibit the use of the gateways to allow third party use via contract or technology. They do not prohibit TOR, yet! We should note that once again, the regulation of News International and its subsidiaries is a political problem since Sky is now the country’s second largest broadband provider.

This over reach will, I hope, lead to a greater scrutiny by us, citizens, as to our consent to laws. If the certainty of discovery becomes higher, and includes activity in the home, then it’s possible that many laws will loose consent and require change. (Our experience of the drug laws are not good evidence for this optimism.)

 Fighting Back

The Open Rights Group have been following this issue, as network level filters move from mobile networks to fixed line broadband providers. Peter Bradwell has published a blog, which points at Newsnight’s research on Overblocking and reports the ORG’s recent lobbying activities and proposes a manifesto. The ORG are working through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, a Government advisory body and

(Is this a new quango when the Tories promised to abolish them?)

are using their membership to help the group ensure ISPs take concrete steps to deal with inevitable over-blocking by their filtering systems. While the focus of the ORG’s work is on Digital Liberty and in this case over filtering, it has frequently sponsored work into the politics of child protection. It has pointed me at the United Nations’s Rights of the Child declaration, to which the UK is a signatory, and commits us to supporting a child’s right to childhood, to be educated, healthy, fairly treated and to be heard. Serious campaigners for child protection who review this governments actions in making the country safer for children, question the cuts in the police, the specialist child protection units and their training. Child protection requires joined up evidence based policy making, not the opposite.

The ORG’s current concerns are that users do not know what’s happening, site publishers can’t check, can’t appeal to the ISPs, these decisions are not regulated, and the technology is opaque, even to experts. The ORG have a 10 step improvement plan, which if implemented would increase transparency, harmonise appeals and remediation, reduce errors and transparently measure what’s happening. They propose a deadline for implementing these changes. The list is also an argument as to why the Government should have legislated; these duties on the ISPs and the censors and the need for independence and transparency might have been identified and mandated before actions had been taken.

The ORG have also launched a crowd sourcing site to allow people to report blocks. See http://www.blocked.org.uk/ and are asking for technical volunteers in an article here to make progress on their Censorship Monitoring Project.

Sadly I can’t help with block reporting; I am a BT customer and I have the filters turned off. I have volunteered for the Monitoring Project.

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