Gigaom

Why Opt-In Porn Is a Terrible Idea


British Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street in central London

Photograph by Andrew Cowie/AFP via Getty Images

British Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street in central London

Thanks to the curious British institution of pre-releasing sections of major speeches, we know now that, later on Monday, the prime minister will announce what will effectively be an on-by-default online pornography filter in the U.K. While Web users today can opt into activating such a family-friendly filter through their Internet service provider (ISP), in the future they will have to opt out.

This has been coming for a long while. Previously, when the government tried to get ISPs to block pornography by default, the ISPs pushed back and the aforementioned off-by-default filter scheme came into being. However, a leaked letter from the government to the ISPs earlier this month showed that this was going to change, like it or not, and here we are.

Some of the words that will fall out of Prime Minister David Cameron’s mouth later today:

“I want to talk about the internet. The impact it is having on the innocence of our children. How online pornography is corroding childhood. And how, in the darkest corners of the Internet, there are things going on that are a direct danger to our children, and that must be stamped out. …

“I’m not making this speech because I want to moralise or scaremonger, but because I feel profoundly as a politician, and as a father, that the time for action has come. This is, quite simply, about how we protect our children and their innocence.”

Now, there is no question that children today find it much easier to view pornography than in the pre-Internet era. I can certainly see why many people have a problem with this and want to see something done about it. The problem is, this is a bad way of going about it.

A few issues:

Bad blacklists: Unless there’s some heavyweight on-the-fly deep packet inspection going on, filters such as these need to run off a blacklist, so they know what to block. These lists are not generally compiled entry-by-entry, but rather by category. Mistakes are made. Many U.K. mobile operators have been running automatic filters for adult content for a while, and they often get it stunningly wrong—as GigaOM can testify. Cameron seems to want DVD-style age classifications to apply online, but the amount of material up for censorship is much larger there than for officially released music and movies, meaning the process will need to be automated. Who runs those systems and how? Who compiles and maintains the blacklists?

Diverse platforms: YouTube is often blocked through those mobile Internet blacklists, presumably because some of its content is adult-oriented, though obviously not outright pornographic, otherwise YouTube would block it itself. So what about general-purpose platforms like Tumblr that are widely (mostly?) used by kids, but that also contain vast swathes of pornography with the approval of the site’s proprietors? The chances of some Tumblr pages being on the list and others staying off are pretty slim. Important to note: Other types of legal content that often get blocked through such systems include sex education sites and LGBT sites.

Security risk: One doesn’t have to be an outright libertarian to spot the problem with official lists of porn users—the potential for misuse is quite high. I don’t just mean the potential for a bad government having dirt on its citizens (though … cough … Prism and Tempora … cough), but also the possibility of said lists being hacked into by others, such as tabloid journalists. What’s more, due to the problems mentioned above, those lists might have quite a few people on them who merely wanted to unblock some miscategorized Tumblr page.

Smart kids: When it comes to the Internet, I think it’s fair to say digital natives have the edge over middle-aged government ministers. Filters and blocks don’t work when you know how to operate a proxy or VPN—and thanks to the crackdown on pirated music and video, such techniques are widely used.

And then there’s the potential for such mechanisms being used to censor other types of material—but that’s a slippery-slope argument that deals more with theoretical than immediate dangers. There’s plenty to be worried about with the current proposals.

It should be noted that the government also wants to crack down further on various types of illegal pornography involving children or scenes of real or simulated rape. Web service providers such as Google (GOOG) are being urged to do more to block such content from being listed in their search results, and Cameron wants those searching for illegal content to see pop-up warning pages. There are debates to be had around aspects of this—see this tweet for a salient jibe—but it’s a somewhat different matter from the accessing of legal pornography.

Cameron’s crackdown is, of course, a political matter—particularly after the legalization of gay marriage, the right wing of his Conservative Party is getting antsy. But even without getting into the politics of the proposals, their technological literacy leaves a lot to be desired. If you want to be seen to be doing something, that thing should at least work.

Also from GigaOM:

U.K.-Based Accounting Firms Slow on the Cloud-Computing Uptake (subscription required)

Forget Second-Screen Apps. Today the TV Is the Second Screen

Wearable Computers Might Use a New Paper-Thin Interactive “E-Skin,” the First Made of Plastic

IBM High-Fives Netflix Open-Source Tools

Today’s Complex Global Supply Chains Are Poised to Be Dismantled

Meyer is a senior writer for Gigaom.

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