O2 and the Lack of Internet Filter Transparency

When the large ISPs rolled out their poorly-named “porn filters” in December, they all arrived missing an essential feature: a tool to check whether each filter blocked a specific URL or not. Without these tools from Sky, BT or TalkTalk, anti-filter campaigners resorted to using the only such service available, which happened to be from O2. O2, being a mobile provider, had actually been filtering content since 2004, but its URL checker (urlchecker.o2.co.uk) had largely been ignored for several years.

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The storm of abuse that O2 received in December was therefore quite unfair: it was targeted, not for being the worst offender, but for being the most transparent of all the mobile and broadband Internet providers. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before O2 took its URL checking service offline; and although the company denies this was done to stop people sending angry tweets, the page is still offline today, displaying the message:

Our URL checker is currently unavailable as we are updating the site.

Perhaps the provider really is updating the site… but let’s not hold our breaths. If I were a manager at O2, I probably would have reached the same conclusion: there’s no point being transparent when transparency is bad for business. Every other ISP, watching O2‘s support Twitter ID get bombarded during early December, will have also decided not to offer an online URL checker. Quite simply, market forces will punish any provider that breaks from the pack and provides information about how its filter works, and which sites it blocks.

It is therefore disgraceful that the government allowed the filtering to be put in place without mandating provider transparency. Countless sites have undoubtedly been blocked in error, but it is very difficult to find out which ones are blocked by which providers.

Sadly, we cannot expect Claire Perry MP, who is responsible for this mess, to call for this problem to be remedied. Transparency will reveal the huge extent of overblocking, which will be as bad for her career as it is for ISPs’ reputations.

It is up to the public to expose this deliberate suppression of information, and to shame government into action. If you care about Internet freedom, please tweet BT, TalkTalk, Sky, David Cameron and Claire Perry to ask why we cannot easily see what is being censored; and also ask O2 when their URL checker will be back online. Use the #CensoredUK hashtag in your tweets, and we will retweet them!

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UK Government Admits Filters Have Failed

Poor old Claire Perry. Having championed Internet censorship child-protection filters, and become a hero to the Tory right and Daily Mail, she appears to have pissed off much of the remainder of the online public. She has steadfastly denied that filters are prone to massive and eternal overblocking, calling such claims “fanciful” only a few days ago. But, as long predicted, overblocking is a huge problem, and as anybody with an understanding of the technology can explain to Perry and Cameron, it can’t ever be adequately resolved: the problem is just too big.

Perry and Cameron have regularly insisted that ISPs can be left to run filters without need for regulation. So it must be enormously embarrassing for them that the UK Government this week announced plans to introduce – in a small way – regulation. In response to an avalanche of news about inappropriate blocking – from ChildLine to the Samaritans – the government has announced it will create a white-list of sites that must not be blocked.

The clear motivation for this is to avoid any more embarrassing news stories highlighting how inaccurate the filters are. The government can’t hope to prevent overblocking any more than the ISPs can, but at least they can ensure that key UK charities are not blocked. This announcement is an admission of failure.

But this move should not be greeted as a step in the right direction. In order to create and manage the white-list, the government needs to create – at taxpayer expense – an Internet censorship team, albeit one with a limited role, for the time being. The new list cannot possibly hope to resolve the majority of blocking errors – all it can do is ensure a small, elite list of websites remains accessible to under-18s.

Overblocking isn’t the main problem, filters are

So overblocking will continue – it just won’t attract as much media attention as before. But even if it could be resolved, this white-list avoids the critical concerns about the filters: overblocking isn’t the real problem. The problem is – still – the filters themselves.

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The government still insists on perpetuating the dangerous myth that children are in danger online, and that the answer to this danger is censorship. It continues to pretend there is evidence that allowing children to explore the Internet can be harmful. It continues to ignore the fact that parental control software for PCs has been available for years, and child-friendly tablets are now on sale everywhere, making the need for further filtering redundant. It continues to spread the myth that denying children access to information is safe, rather than harmful. It continues to blur the very important line between young adults and pre-pubescent children. It continues to provide abusers a tool with which to deny their wife, husband, child, access to vital information.

The government admitted this week that the filtering programme has failed. But they maintain the pretence that the failure is a small one, and can be easily repaired. A government white-list will resolve these problems just as well as a severed limb can be repaired using a Post-It note.

If the UK government truly cares about child welfare, it will defend the right of teenagers to freely access the Internet, and it will educate parents as to how they can protect and educate their younger children. Of course they won’t: and meanwhile, they have created a new censorship function within government that we should be watching very carefully indeed.

Ready, Normal People?

The legendary Avenue Q song asks all the “normal people” to join in for the final chorus of the hilarious song, The Internet is For Porn, and it’s never disappointed: thousands of audience members have, over the years, rejoiced in singing along about their masturbatory habits, relieved that, at least in some small way, they can publicly acknowledge their consumption of one of the world’s most popular entertainment formats – porn.

Surprise, then, when the music fades and an actual debate about internet censorship and sexuality arises, and the general public suddenly falls silent on this very serious issue. It’s like someone cut the music halfway through, and they’re caught warbling along – embarrassed to be singled out, they suddenly shut up and pretend the issue has nothing to do with them. But if we’re honest, most of us are consumers of pornography – and yeah, ladies, I’m including us too. Because I have a confession to make to the world:

Hello, Internet. My name is Sephy Hallow, and I like porn*.

What’s more: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting it. Whilst on one hand, I’m not going to openly discuss my particular kinks, that doesn’t mean we can’t have an open, honest discussion about pornography consumption, access to explicit materials, and the importance of a free internet. Because if we don’t, our embarrassment about our sexual preferences is going to have real-world consequences on access to information, sexual health advice and much, much more – plenty of which is entirely non-sexual, safe-for-work, important information, which has been blocked in an attempt to sanitize the web – all in the name of saving the children.

Grown Ups: Grow Up

The internet should absolutely be a space where our children can feel safe to access information and connect socially, amongst other things. However, having default blocks is not the way to go.

Here’s why.

Firstly: it’s not really necessary. The internet has come on a long way since the 90s. If you’re still getting pop-ups advertising horny Russian teens or online Viagra, you need an ad block, not a filter from your ISP. Porn isn’t something you can just innocently stumble onto these days (unless you count Miley Cyrus videos), and it’s even harder to make a fatal Google error with a little parental guidance. Internet filtering is designed to protect children from unwanted exposure to explicit content, and of course we should protect that right – I’m just saying we don’t need to block access to do so.

The internet is a new facet to our sexuality, so it’s up to us as grown ups to provide information, guidance and advice to children and young people about what they can expect to find online. The best way to prevent exposure is to educate your children, so they can avoid such material themselves.

Secondly, we need to open up the debate, and be honest with ourselves. When I say it’s up to the grown ups to offer guidance to young people about sex and the web, I don’t just mean parents and teachers: I mean it’s up to all of us to shape the debate, decide how best we can balance the need to protect children and deny censorship, and provide that safe platform for children without limiting regular access to content for adult consumers. After all, if we can’t talk to other adults in an honest manner about our sexuality and its online expression, what chance have we got in educating young people about sex and the internet?

Allowing widespread internet filtering might seem like the easy option, but if it comes with a caveat of sacrificing our freedom to information – an important civil liberty – how are we making the world better for these children?

Finally, and maybe most importantly, since it encompasses people on all sides of the debate: it simply doesn’t work. Not only does it not work, but it actually fails in two ways: one, that filtering can easily be circumvented; and two, that it blocks other content, much of which is not sexually explicit, and some of which is even political in nature, adding a much more serious problem of censorship to the issue.

Case in point: The Court of The Hague just announced that Dutch ISPs will no longer be mandated to block access to torrent website The Pirate Bay, because the blocks are “disproportionate and ineffective.” If blocks don’t work to curb illegal behaviour, you can bet it won’t stop people accessing something as legal and popular as porn.

Ready normal people? Sing it with me:

The internet is for porn … the internet is for porn …

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*Please, please don’t send me dick pics. Much though I love a nice bit of wang – or pussy, for that matter, as an openly bisexual woman – I’m quite happy to source my pleasure media in my own time, thanks.