Following the Daivd Cameron’s speech on protecting children and online pornography, Open Rights Group’s Jim Killock argues that the Prime Minister has created a very unfortunate debate about what he expects from Internet Service Providers and is misleading parents into expecting a silver bullet to protect their children.
Last week, Open Rights Group published a list of questions about the impacts of filtering technologies, on privacy, Internet applications and user awareness of the technology. These are a baseline of the concerns. We do not expect filters to be ‘default on’ but rather ‘active choice’: we expect adults to make a choice about what they install, as the government promised following their DfE consultation last year. Cameron states that:
“By the end of this year, when someone sets up a new broadband account the settings to install family-friendly filters will be automatically selected. If you just click ‘next’ or ‘enter’, then the filters are automatically on.”
We hope he is inaccurate. Why wouldn’t the set up require you make an ‘active’ decision, yes or no, as previously agreed? Anything less would mean parents not engaging with the technology. It would mean accepting that the collateral damage from filtering would apply to many people entirely pointlessly. This won’t just be pornography: it will be likely to include alcohol, gambling, web forums, and supposedly extreme political views.
However, today’s comments from Cameron also constitute misleading and dangerous advice to parents. He said:
“In a really big step forward, all the ISPs have rewired their technology so that once your filters are installed, they will cover any device connected to your home internet account. No more hassle of downloading filters for every device, just one-click protection. One click to protect your whole home and keep your children safe.”
“Once those filters are installed, it should not be the case that technically literate children can just flick the filters off at the click of a mouse without anyone knowing. So we have agreed with industry that those filters can only be changed by the account holder, who has to be an adult. So an adult has to be engaged in the decisions.”
This places too much faith in technical tools that have historically proved flawed in achieving their goals.
Teenagers are usually sexually curious, and the forbidden has its own cachet. This may motivate them to try to bypass filters. It is poor advice to suggest that they will not succeed.
The filtering being suggested is only likely to work for those not actively looking for adult content, and even then no filter is perfect. For instance devices, left unchecked, could be used to bypass filtering with extreme ease. Filtering can often be bypassed by anyone with an admin password, by using a VPN or proxy. This may sound technical, but is trivial. Many children learn how to do this to access Facebook at school
Additionally, many network filters will only be applied to content sent “in the clear” and not encrypted content. In this circumstance, if available, SSL can be used to trivially bypass filtering – anyone capable of adding an “s” into a URL can do this. (As a consequence, pornographers may move to SSL if a large part of their adult market is induced into a filtered Internet.)
Thus Cameron’s advice is just plain bad and misleading. Children will not necessarily be any less likely to be able to access whatever they like as the result of network filters, even if they are deterred. That may be a reasonable objective – but it is wrong to suggest that a magic bullet has solved the problem he talks about.
But that is symptomatic of the policy conundrum he has placed himself into, by pandering to a demand from the Daily Mail that ‘porn must be blocked’ and only accessible through an ‘opt in’.
Education and parents talking to their children remain the only way for children to be helped. Cameron today should have been heavily caveating his claims, and by failing to do so, many parents will think the technologies ISPs are about to provide do a much better job than they will.
This post originally appeared on the Open Rights Group blog on 22 July 2013 and is re-posted with permission and thanks. The post gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.