Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Twisting the facts to fit the story - the media and BT Cleanfeed stats

Kieran McCarthy is also less than enamoured with the mainstream media hysteria over BT's latest report on it's BT Cleanfeed statistics. BT Cleanfeed is the company's child pornography software filter system.

The stories are all essentially reporting the same thing - that 35000 attempts to access child abuse pictures are blocked by BT every day. McCarthy says that the reality is somewhat different.

"It is a carefully engineered twisting of figures and facts to provide a dramatic story. Maybe that's just par for the course, but when you are talking about child pornography and building up an image of the Internet as a dangerous, lawless place, you would think media outlets like the BBC, Independent and Times would be a little more careful.

The facts

Here are the facts: BT runs a program it calls "Cleanfeed". This programme consists of blocking access to a list of websites provided to its by the Internet Watch Foundation. Anyone using BT as an Internet service provider will not be allowed to visit these sites, and BT keeps records of how often it blocks access.

BT released figures yesterday that showed Cleanfeed had picked up four million hits over the past four months. This has been reported as 35,000 attempts to access child porn site per day...


A "hit" - is a single request for a piece of information from a web page - be that a picture, the text, a piece of code, whatever. As such a single web page that you view can account for a number of hits. In fact, because of how web design has developed, you tend to get, on average, 10 hits per actual page that you look at on the screen. However, if it comes to a webpage exclusively set up to show pictures, you get very easily get anywhere from 30 to 100 hits per page...

So what are BT's results? Well, we don't know, because BT refuses to tell anyone what its figures relate to...

Some calculations

So, we have 33,000 hits a day. Let's assume a figure of 50 hits per page. That equates to 660 page impressions a day. That's still alot of pages you say. Yes, except for the fact that this blog alone averages over 2,000 page impressions a day.

I can tell you that those 2,000 page impressions equate to 400 people. So assuming that the people click on this site as the same rate as someone looking frantically for child pornography - which is quite obviously not going to be true - that means that 130 BT customers a day try to find child porn. BT has over three million customers.

There are people looking for child porn out there, and you can assume that if they are willing to look for it, they will search extensively. So I think you can safely assume that there are approximately 20 people using BT that are looking for child porn.

Which means that across the UK, there are probably 150 people trying to access child porn on any every given day, out of a total population of 60 million. Suddenly it doesn't seem quite so terrifying, does it...

The real story is that the UK has the strongest anti-child porn system and laws in the world. That's a fact. The actual situation is that there is now almost no child porn at all stored on UK computers, that the number of people attempting to access it anywhere on the Internet from this country is tiny, and that figure is most likely going down.

So how come the media reports point to the exact opposite of the situation? How come the very, very clear implication is that there are 35,000 individuals attempting to download child pornography every day in the UK?

How come the media has knowingly ignored the whole furore that blew up last time BT Cleanfeed figures were misrepresented?

Because it is a better story if you ignore all the facts. Is it a story that should be written? No. Because it is spreading fear, and it is building an entirely false picture in people's minds."

I agree that the media has a tendency to sensationalise but the psychology is more complicated than that.

Firstly there is a kind of a lazy groupthink going on where one interpretation of a story is widely accepted without question.

Seondly, the fact that it is fear-inducing means it is attractive from a sales perspective.

Thirdly no one wants to be the person that points out that the story is not as bad as it seems because this risks being accused of being the public defender of child abusers. [This is no mere theoretical concern. It is a commonly used political and media rhetoric device (You don't support our brilliant anti-terror laws; you must therrefore support the terrorists) and at least one senior executive of a well known ISP was outrageously defamed in a broadsheet newspaper on similar grounds in the mid 1990s, as was the operator of an anonymous listserv.]

Fourthly from the journalists' perpective there is a certain internal warm glow to be had from believing you are exposing some widespread terrible crime that the government will then be forced to do something about.

Scare stories that override the reality of a serious crime situation do nothing to help authorities on the ground deal with the problem. In response to this kind of media scaremongering, governments of all creeds are more likely to engage in legislative gesture politics than to supply real extra resources to the hi-tech crime and child abuse units dealing with these crimes and that in the end is counterproductive.

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