Tuesday, October 02, 2012

MP's response on parental controls

I copied my to short response to the consultation by the Department for Education on parental internet controls to my MP, Nicola Blackwood. Ms Blackwood has now contacted me about my concerns at the proposals as below.
"Dear Mr Corrigan,

Thank you for contacting me with your concerns regarding proposals for filtering of adult online content, and I apologise for the delay in my response.

I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and personal experience with me on this issue, which I have read with interest. I am sorry to hear of the problems you have had with your own blog because of filters imposed by Orange, which I appreciate must have been very frustrating. You experience also raises an important point about site filtering, and one which I know Ministers will take very seriously into account as plans develop.
I believe that the internet is, by and large, a force for good. It is central to our lives and our economy and the Government has to be wary about regulating or passing legislation which might stifle it. Nevertheless, the advent of the internet has brought a number of problems, such as the proliferation of pornographic material on the internet.
The Government is therefore committed to ensuring that children can use the internet safely without access to unsuitable adult material. Some safeguards are already in place, with the managers of websites featuring mature content having a legal responsibility to indicate clearly on their front page that their site is unsuitable for anybody under the age of 18. Additionally, if a website charges for access then any adult content must be placed behind a credit card barrier to reduce further the risk of children and young people accessing it.
As you are aware, moves are now underway to strengthen and extend these safeguards. For instance, on 28 October 2011 a new code of practice on parental controls was launched by the four major Internet Service Providers - BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin. This code means that new customers will be presented with an unavoidable choice of whether or not to activate parent controls. Through regular information updates, I understand that existing customers will also be offered the opportunity to activate parental controls.
In addition to this, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety is working on the adoption of a system whereby customers are always presented with an unavoidable choice about whether or not they want filters and blocks installed on their home internet service, through an approach known as "active choice". The Department for Education is now consulting on this proposal, and on what more can be done to keep children safe online.
I note your concern that network filters could end up blocking innocuous or educational content. However, I would emphasise that these proposals do not seek to impose unnecessary censorship on internet users, but are designed to give parents the tools they need to ensure their child's safety online.
While I believe that education of parents and children about the potential dangers of the internet is very important as a tool to help families avoid undesirable content, I would still welcome other practical measures to increase internet security for those instances when children access the internet in the absence of parents, teachers or guardians, and may come across anything from disturbing adult or violent material to online scams or sites containing viruses.

You also write that you feel more time and resources need to be spent on tracking and prosecuting online child abusers, preventing abuse and helping victims of grooming. I would assure you that this agenda is very high on the list of Ministers’ priorities, and that I am also actively engaged at a local level with relevant groups and organisations to try to make sure we are taking the most proactive approaches we can to tackling this threat to children and young people.

I have written to the new Culture Secretary Maria Miller MP to pass the concerns you have raised to her direct attention. I have also asked for further information as to what monitoring or filtering measures can be implemented to identify more subtle grooming and befriending techniques used by abusers, such as posing as a young person, where there may be no adult language, images or other filterable content in use. I shall of course be glad to pass on any substantive response I receive in due course.

Thank you once again for taking the time to contact me on this issue and I hope this response is helpful.

Kind regards,
My further response to Nicola is as follows.

Thanks for your response. I note your well intentioned support for filters and your belief in the government line that the proposals “do not seek to impose unnecessary censorship on internet users, but are designed to give parents the tools they need to ensure their child's safety online.”

One of the long lasting negative legacies of the previous government was the waste of billions of pounds on technology they didn’t understand, in the misplaced hope that it would magically help to solve multiple political, economic and social problems they were also incapable of defining.

Unfortunately the hope that a filtering technology can fix the range of problems you outline here – children accessing disturbing adult or violent material, online scams or sites containing viruses – has been around ever since the US Supreme Court struck down the anti-indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act in 1997. In those days even some technologists believed that technical filters were a workable alternative option to overly broad speech regulation. I don’t know of any serious computer scientist today who believes that upstream network level filtering can address the issue of access to content potentially harmful to minors. Not only will it not solve that problem, it will create a whole range of additional problems.

Mandating network filters is like imposing a restrictive architecture on the internet.  I try to explain to my students the perils of such an approach via the example of prolific 20th-century New York City planner, Robert Moses. Moses built highway bridges along roads to the parks and beaches in Long Island that were too low for buses to pass under. Hence the parks and beaches were accessible only to car owners – many of them white middle class or wealthy. Poor people without cars, mainly African Americans and other minorities, would be forced to use other parks and beaches accessible by bus. Thus social relations between black and white people were regulated, an example of discriminatory regulation through architecture. Moses vehemently denied that there was any racist intent on his part. Yet his intent was irrelevant. The architecture regulated behaviour whether he intended to or not. Likewise it is irrelevant that the government “do not seek to impose unnecessary censorship on internet users”. Mandated filters will impose such censorship whilst at the same time facilitating access to material it is hoped that they will block.

A defining feature of the future of our economy and our society will be the architecture of the internet. It will change the world in ways probably more fundamental than the printing press. Locking it down in crude unworkable ways will only be damaging.

My earlier note to the consultation, copied to you, only scratched the surface of the catalogue of problems with what is being proposed here. Apologies for that – I didn’t have the time to make a comprehensive submission.

Many of the submissions to the consultation opposing the proposal are much more detailed and articulate.  The ISPs – including TalkTalk, often cited as being in favour – are against default filtering and have explained it is neither necessary nor effective.  You mention you would welcome practical measures to address security in an unsupervised access context. But from a practical technical perspective default blocking is almost impossible.

The optional ‘HomeSafe’ filter offered by TalkTalk and taken up by less than a tenth of their customers is reported to have significant flaws. It cost them £20 million. (The operation of HomeSafe is also potentially unlawful under a range of statutes including the Data Protection Act, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, Computer Misuse Act, Copyright Designs & Patents Act, amongst others.  But that’s a complex story for another day, although mandated filtering proposals would likely trip over similar regulatory hurdles). It is ineffective but at least it remains optional.

There are (and have been for a long time) ISP, free and commercially available parental control software filters.  They are crude, ineffective and overbroad. They are also trivially bypassed by smart tech savvy kids. They are, however, optional and parents can use/buy them and set the levels to suit their own household needs whilst always bearing in mind the software’s limitations.

Giving parents the impression that government mandated filters deployed centrally on the network are effective induces a false sense of security.

There is no detail on how blacklists would be managed or implemented in system software. Who decides what is harmful to minors and how do they decide this?

There is no detail on due process or how to get legitimate sites removed from such blacklists. Though trivial to bypass crude filters have and do damage small businesses where customers don’t necessarily have the required understanding of filter circumvention measures. As COADEC says, “Default blocking inadvertently blocks perfectly legal and legitimate businesses and organisations, and a reporting and redress process that is complicated, and lengthy, could seriously inhibit a business who launches their site to discover it has incorrectly been blocked."

It will be hugely expensive for ISPs and probably government, since ISPs will not want to be solely responsible for the cost of such investment.

Additionally the legal hurdles – existing UK law – facing the implementation of such a system are huge.

So if I could summarise briefly with a business case assessment:

Q1 What problem are we trying to solve?
A1 This is ill defined but suppose we take the problem as children “accessing disturbing adult or violent material, online scams or sites containing viruses” that you mention

Q2 What is the proposed solution?
A2 Mandated network filters

Q3 How well does it solve the problem?
A3 Not at all.

Q4 What other problems does it create?
A4 Many including parental false sense of security, complex operational issues, damaged internet, probably insurmountable economic, political and legal problems

Q5 How much does it cost?
A5 Tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds.

Q6 Is it worth it?
A6 No.

As I say, I understand the well intentioned support for the proposals. But I hope this goes some way towards showing you how unworkable they are. There really is no practical alternative, in this context, to the education of parents and children about the benefits and potential dangers of the internet and the tools they use to access it.