On gamer culture: like talking to aliens

I have labels. Lots of labels. I am a transgender woman, autistic, chronically ill, disabled, have depression and anxiety – and more. I used to have all that in my twitter bio because they made it easy for people with similar labels to find me and understand me. They’re not in my bio anymore, because of messages like this:

Image reads "I have to say I lack the imagination to even conceive of someone as ridiculous as the person described in your bio"
A troll attacks my labels

I have so many labels that a lot of people don’t believe they can all be real. Even when they do believe a label they don’t understand what it means.

In many parts of internet culture these words are a joke to be ridiculed. As a trans woman I am constantly erased and left out by people’s words. The people who make “triggered” jokes think it means to be annoyed or angry. As someone with mental health problems, triggered to me means to be left in a state of panic, heart racing, terrified, unable to move. (I have written about seeing a friend with ptsd be triggered if you want to a stronger example.)

Image reads "what's ur gender?" "did you just assume my gender? *triggered*"
Gamers in Overwatch joke about being triggered and misgendered

Unfortunately thinking these things are funny isn’t limited to 4chan and other shock forums. It is common in internet culture and for gamers in particular to joke about sexually identifying as an attack helicopter or being triggered.

There seems to be fewer arseholes playing Overwatch than some games – probably because they are put off by the diversity represented in the game – but nevertheless jokes about such things aren’t uncommon. Sometimes I call them out, but more often it is safer to stay quiet and hope they shut up. Recently I’ve been playing Overwatch with one particular group of people and spending time in their Discord chat. One or two of them do make occasional jokes like this. I usually ignored them but a couple of days ago one such joke about trans women’s genitals sent me into a panic attack and in my panic I left the server. My departure was noticed, and they begged me to come back but the conversation did not go well. I pointed out that one of claims that I left because I was “triggered” was actually an accurate use of the word for once, and this was the reply:

Image reads "I mean I'm fine if you get a bit triggered, as they say, as long as you aren't trying to silence people."
Where do I start?

Faced with such a failure to understand, I gave up. How could I even begin to explain what I went through? Instead, I left behind the community that I had found. I’m upset, but I can’t risk staying around where this can happen again. Trying to explain my mental state to people with no clue might as well be talking to aliens – where would I even start? They worried about not silencing jokes, but the price of that decision is excluding me.

What do you do?

“What do you do?”

The question I dread. The question I cannot answer. Not without losing face, anyway.

“What do you do?”

I sit on Twitter.

That’s what I do. All day. Mostly on a tablet. On a laptop or desktop PC when I am well enough. On a phone in bed when I am not. I’m there when I wake up in the morning. I’m there at 2am. I don’t really leave. I watch the stream of tweets flow past. And believe me, when you follow more than 3,000 people they really flow.

It fills the time between hospital appointments. The endless stream brings me news, jokes, struggles, friendship. It fills my browser with tabs to read. So many that I barely have enough time to look away from the stream to read them.

It’s not like I can do much else since I became too sick to work. Mitochondrial myopathy and a whole catalogue of other problems have robbed me of my concentration, my ability to go to my office, to talk, sit, walk or stand when employment demands it. I can’t do the things that employers are willing to pay for anymore, but I can tweet. And I do. A lot.

I still crave usefulness though.

“What do you do?”

I tell people what I think will make them see me as like them. As a productive member of society. I tell them I am an activist. A welfare and disability rights campaigner. I am, too. Twitter has got me involved in campaign groups, put me in touch with people doing anything they can to get the truth in front of media and MPs. Twitter has found me radio and TV interviews and eventually lead to me being part of a Judicial Review over PIP. Through Twitter I have listened to the despair of many sick friends when they try to get the help they are supposed to get. I advise them, tell them where to find the hidden rules, how to get help to get help. Through my own trivial tweets, I am told, I help others to realise they aren’t alone, that their illness isn’t imaginary. They have done the same for me. I have made people aware of injustice, of the fights against that injustice. I have shown them protests and struggles. I have done more than I ever did when I had a nearly functional body and brain.

But all of this takes a toll. I am not well. I am very much not well. Physically and mentally I struggle through every day, and these days, Twitter is an endless bombardment of despair. For me Twitter suffers from having split purpose. It is a space to meet friends, sure, but it is also a public speaking platform. It is a news stream. Since all my friends care about the horror of the world, even when I want to withdraw from that to recover I still see what they are talking about. Twitter is a place for intimate sharing, for larger social circles, for staying aware of what is happening, and for speaking out. The biggest problem comes when a tweet meant only for one of those purposes crosses over to the others. When a minor personal gripe to a close friend becomes an international phenomenon embedded in news stories everywhere.

Over the last few years my tweets have attracted attention. Not huge by media standards but still enough that I will often get 100 retweets on something I said. I am pretty good at accidental anger that people share and amplify. If I am on a roll I can have several tweets like this on the go at once and that makes my notifications… interesting. My tweets about illness attract replies from friends, of course, but also from more distant acquaintances. They often attract unwanted advice that is irrelevant or I have already tried and discarded years before. My political tweets often receive insults or abuse from right-wing people who have come across me being retweeted. The questions, advice, insults and abuse all make me panic and retreat from Twitter. Well, that’s not quite true. I have started retreating to a private locked twitter account which just a few friends are able to see. I don’t think this is uncommon either. Quite a few people have a locked Twitter account alongside their public one, especially people who aren’t straight white cisgender men.

Admitting to having a locked account will make some of my followers sad and for that I am sorry, but this raises another aspect that I am struggling with. I have been very open about physical and mental illness and as a result I have far more people emotionally invested in me than I could ever keep track of. I feel guilty about this every day because I wish I could return the friendship shown to me. Sometimes even the friendly responses are too much for me to deal with and so I have said less about personal things on my public account and only put a few of them on my locked account instead. When I finally managed to admit and talk about my gender dysphoria I did that almost exclusively on my locked account – which is messed up in itself because I have been unashamed of physical and mental illness yet too ashamed of my gender to talk publicly.

I am not sure if there is any solution to the problems I have mentioned. I am bad at segregating my tweets between accounts and in any case I feel useless when something I said could have helped someone else but stayed hidden away. I have thought about deleting my public twitter account but that would be a waste of something that can do a lot of good. I have considered unfollowing everyone and then adding back only a few people so that I see less awfulness but that would upset many people and not address the replies that I cannot deal with.

I am not asking for advice – as should be obvious if you just read this blog post. I guess I will continue with Twitter, continue to raise my voice about the problems that I see, because that is what I do.

“What do you do?”

I shout.

Samaritans Radar and Twitter’s Public Problem

Let me preface this by saying that contact from friends through Twitter when I have been at low points has absolutely saved my life. I would be dead if it were not for my friends on Twitter. Now, with that out of the way, read on.

The Samaritans have proudly launched a new app that when activated will alert the user to tweets from people they follow that might betray suicidal thoughts. When you sign up to Samaritans Radar it will watch the tweets of everyone that you follow and will email you as soon as it notices any tweets with key words and phrases related to depression. It is described as working through “a specially designed algorithm that looks for specific keywords and phrases within a Tweet.”

Spotting when a friend is low or suicidal is a laudable aim but this app immediately rings huge alarm bells for me. There are huge implications for privacy and consent. It seems that the Samaritans have considered only the privacy of the person that signs up to use the app, but says nothing about the privacy or consent of the people that the app monitors. In fact the website assures us that “The people you follow won’t know you’ve signed up to it and all alerts will be sent directly to your email address.”

The reaction to this app has been divided. On the one hand there are scores of people who seem very pleased with this and think it is a useful tool and a great idea. On the other hand, nearly everyone who I know who has or has had mental health problems has been immediately shocked, outraged and scared by it. The objections are many, including that people may self-censor if they think that they will trigger this app, that they may trigger it too often, that the app may be used by stalkers to pinpoint when a person is most vulnerable. Or spammers. Or evangelists. It is natural, then, to ask whether someone can reject Radar. Alas, it seems not. The Samaritans director of policy was asked the question and his response was troublesome to say the least: lock your Twitter account.

https://twitter.com/Ferns_Joe/status/527450160214056960

The idea that people should lock their account to avoid something is one that is also frequently used to defend harassment and to defend doing nothing about harassment. It always comes from people who have not experienced the issues that might drive a person to hide in that way and who thinks it acceptable to tell marginalised people to hide themselves if they don’t like society. It is unacceptable to drive people to hide rather than address a problem within society. The same viewpoint says that tweets are public and searchable therefore anything that people chose to do with them is OK. That is also unacceptable.

https://twitter.com/Ferns_Joe/status/527452663185948674

Radar may be limited only to those who follow me but I have over 6,000 followers. I follow only half that number, and I actually, really know only a few hundred at most. Among my followers are people who hate me and people who are my political enemies who are keeping tabs on my activities so limiting something to my followers is not good enough.

https://twitter.com/PaulAshYoung/status/527461305104744448

https://twitter.com/Ferns_Joe/status/527454616024539137

The suggestion that we don’t know how Twitter works is really insulting. People use Twitter in many different ways. For some Twitter is a news stream, for others it is a marketing channel. It is a place to chat with friends, a place to campaign politically, a place to turn for help, a place to commiserate. Twitter is just a place that humans inhabit and do human things in. The trouble is, Twitter doesn’t know this. The terms and conditions allow the whole stream of tweets to be sold to organisations for various purposes with or without consent.

Here’s the thing. We do know that tweeting is broadcasting. But tweeting is also a conversation among friends in a pub that can sometimes be overheard by others. Some of those others may be casual acquaintances, complete strangers, investigators from the DWP, or journalists. We may or may not care if they overhear. Sometimes something said to friends in a public place can be reported in the news worldwide. That doesn’t mean it’s what you expect to happen. Neither do we expect a mental health charity to create a tool that makes it easier to violate people’s boundaries.

Are you the kind of person that sneaks up to people’s private conversations to monitor them just because they’re in a public place? Because that doesn’t tell me I don’t know how things work, that tells me that you don’t know how society works. There’s an awful lot of people who have no idea of boundaries and think lack of technical block is society’s blessing to do something.

https://twitter.com/geeoharee/status/527461872589484033

https://twitter.com/IamMrJ/status/527459149068902401

The thing is, Samaritans almost get how Twitter can be used. On the Radar web page they say:

“Samaritans recognises that social media is increasingly being used as an outlet for people to share their feelings. In addition, there are some who may go online in the hope that someone will reach out and offer support.”

They must realise that the way a person sharing their feelings uses Twitter is different to the way that marketers or organisations use Twitter.

I think that the concept of an app that can alert a trusted friend about bad mental health episodes could have some merit however any such app must obtain full consent from the person being monitored and it must allow the individual to choose who they trust enough to receive the alerts. I might even use such an app in those circumstances.

Try again, Samaritans.

Please sign the petition to get Samaritans Radar shut down

Related Reading 

Former Samaritans volunteer @elphiemcdork: The Samaritans Radar app – the problem is right there in the name.

@YetAnotherLefty: On “Samaritans Radar”

@adrianshort: Samaritans Radar: paved with good intentions

Serious questions raised over whether Radar is compliant with the Data Protection Act:

@bainesy1969: Samaritans Radar – serious privacy concerns raised

@aimscetera: Email to Samaritans about Radar

@susanhalluk: Weary, Stale, Flat, Unprofitable – and in breach of the Data Protection Act

You can reach The Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.

Online Friendships: The Problem of Feedback

Social media is a great enabler of friendships, particularly for people who for whatever reason cannot interact with other people in person. Where social media falls down is that it can lack feedback. When talking in the physical world humans acknowledge each other in various subtle ways. Sometimes it may not be a complex reply but may just be a look or a nod, a facial expression, or perhaps an audible acknowledgement like “mmmm”, “uh huh” or “oh” or some other noise.

The trouble is we mostly don’t do that when it comes to tweets and comments.

Social media can be used in lots of different ways but what many people post is a mix of news and links alongside personal updates of situations and feelings. People who are reading will see both and will often share what interests them or comment on it. When it comes to more personal updates though, they won’t necessarily reply but they would miss those things if they were not there. The personal updates shape our perception of a person and can increase feelings of connection to that person. Very often though, there is no suitable way to reply. There’s nothing that can easily be said, or we don’t feel the need for a full sentence in reply but have no way to nod our acknowledgement. We read and absorb but say nothing in return.

This leads to a big problem: we can feel ignored because people only interact when we post something funny / awful / outrageous and they seem to skip over the personal stuff. Friendships through social media are real and meaningful, frequently more so than acquaintances in the physical world, and yet they lack a huge chunk of feedback that makes us feel validated as a person.

The “Like” or “Favourite” button has become a proxy for acknowledgement in some cases but that doesn’t work when the situation is negative. A button for “I’ve seen this” or “Dislike” might help but even that wouldn’t solve the problem because social media is more broadcast than one-to-one conversation. It’s like saying something aloud to no-one in particular in a room with hundreds of people in. There’s no telling how many people would see an update and how many of those can stop to acknowledge each one. It would be impossible for someone following more than a few hundred people on Twitter, for example.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to this problem but it is something that we need to work out as more and more of our lives take place through the abstraction of screen and keyboard.

GP staff remove patient from books because he tweeted about them

Another victim of the inability of organisations to cope with the things people say on social media.

This tweet…
https://twitter.com/mat711/status/310000305259556864

Resulted in this letter.
gp discharge letter

Note that the tweet was not actually directed at any twitter account, so the surgery staff would have to have gone looking for it or been tipped off.

The surgery’s patient charter says

With staff

We aim to treat all of our patients courteously at all times and we expect our patients to treat our staff in a similarly respectful way. We take seriously any threatening, abusive, or violent behaviour against any of our staff or other patients. If any of our patients should behave in such a manner they will be warned that if they do not stop they may exercise our right to take action to have them removed, immediately if necessary, from our list of patients.

There’s no indication that any warning was given in this case. When even the prime minister can get away with calling people who use twitter “twats” it seems a bit harsh for someone to be refused medical treatment for using the same word.

What I want in a wheelchair is… a Raspberry Pi

I’ve been thinking for a while about adding a few improvements to an electric wheelchair. Electric wheelchairs are bulky, expensive, run on heavy and dangerous lead acid batteries, and are decidedly behind the times. I want a high-tech wheelchair. I want a hackable wheelchair. In short, what I want is a Raspberry Pi-powered wheelchair.

A Raspberry Pi in an open case

A Raspberry Pi, if you don’t know, is a small, low power, cheap (£20 – £28) computer that runs Linux and is perfect for embedding in projects. I want to add a Raspberry Pi to allow me to add all sorts of functions. Reversing sensors with an audible alarm. Proximity sensors used to actively steer around obstacles. A light sensor that can turn on the headlights. A WiFi or Bluetooth link to a smartphone to report status. Tires that report when they need air, and batteries that report when there is a problem and when they have finished charging or desperately need to be plugged in. Remote control to bring the chair to you. Pre-programmed routes so that the wheelchair can be told with one button on a smartphone to go to the bathroom / kitchen / bedroom.

Once there’s a computer in the wheelchair the possibilities are endless.

It’s unlikely that a Raspberry Pi could interface with the electronics which control the high currents that the motors need so the standard control unit would have to be swapped for control electronics from the robotics world and the equivalent joystick to replace the standard one.  Of course once a computer is in charge the joystick could equally be replaced by voice recognition or an Xbox controller.

My ideal electric wheelchair would have, in no particular order:

Me in my wheelchair
Yes I know the arms are misaligned. That’s what you get second-hand.
  • Lightweight narrow frame
  • Large wheels
  • Lithium batteries
  • Bright LED headlights (Automatic lights on!)
  • Battery sensors – voltage/charge/temperature/cycles
  • Motor temperature sensors
  • Reversing Sensors
  • Tyre pressure sensors
  • Robotics controller
  • CPU (Raspberry Pi!)
  • Smartphone status app connected via WiFi (Is my battery charged yet?)
  • Swappable controls that fit in a socket on either arm without endless bolts and cables to move.
  • Smartphone holder/charger attachment

I’m convinced that this is all possible, and probably not too expensive although any budget at all for this is out of my reach at the moment. There are people out there attempting to improve their wheelchairs, such as the engineer who has written up his attempts at www.wheelchairdriver.com and various attempts based on the Segway. I might just have to make a shopping list and try to find someone willing to fund it.

Scripted, automated troll posts via botnets – welfare opponents running scared

My blog has been attracting trolls recently. Or more likely, I suspect, one troll. They comment most days on my latest blog post under various different names, using a different email address and from a different IP address each time.

Despite the different names, email addresses and IP addresses each time there are consistencies that betray a connection. The domain name of the email addresses are always either that of a throwaway email address provider or a large website. Mostly not an major email provider.) The first part of the email address is often five characters starting with “n”. The name is usually a short form of a male name such as bob, dan, matt, fred, and often has a number like dan 50. They always post the same kind of message – that people won’t work because they’re better off on benefits, that Britain is broke, that British people are lazy and that’s why foreigners have taken all the jobs, that I’m a scrounger. Sometimes they post a link to the daily mail.

You can probably agree that I have reason to suspect this is all the same person. But more than that, I wonder if this person is using an online persona management service like that known to have been requested by various US government agencies, and produced by HBGary among others and sold to governments and corporates. This kind of service and software allows one operator to handle dozens of identities which are used to leave comments anywhere their employer wants a message promoted. It is used to give the impression that there is a lot of disagreement with an idea, or to try to discredit someone by pretending to prove them wrong or just calling their ideas into question. This software is known to exist because one of the companies that make it was hacked in 2011 and had their communications published. A request for this kind of service by a US government agency was also published openly, possibly accidentally on a website for suppliers of services to governments.

Daily Kos writes:

“According to an embedded MS Word document found in one of the HBGary emails, it involvescreating an army of sockpuppets, with sophisticated “persona management” software that allows a small team of only a few people to appear to be many, while keeping the personas from accidentally cross-contaminating each other. Then, to top it off, the team can actually automate some functions so one persona can appear to be an entire Brooks Brothers riot online.”

Who would use this kind of service? And why would they bother with me? I think there are a fair few interested parties who would want to discredit my message about welfare and benefits. Big insurance companies, for one, and companies involved in administering benefits now and in the future. Various think tanks too. We know that insurance company UNUM has been “advising” government for years, and has actually boasted in writing that they influenced welfare policy. Atos has an interest in taking a cut for assessing people. I’m not claiming that any organisation has done this, but these are exactly the kind of customer that persona management services are marketed to.

I don’t think this is paranoia on my part, it’s just an idea I’m pondering. I’m still not sure if my troll is a lone person or several. I’m not claiming to be stalked by the military, I’m talking about software that is sold to military, government agencies, and corporates alike. I’m not talking about being targeted by spy agencies, I’m talking about being on a list of blogs and social network users that have ideas that are vaguely troublesome to the customer for this software. I’m not talking about anyone spending time on me, I’m talking about a person who has dozens of targets and a short brief about what kind of message to post there every so often under a new identity each time. Commenting on my blog is a tiny fraction of their time.

The troll on my blog doesn’t usually read the blog posts, they just scan for keywords like “benefits” and then post their message. They don’t see messages like “your comment is awaiting moderation”, they just try to post four times over a couple of hours. When I block their IP address they don’t come back immediately, they appear the next day on a new address – as though they waited for software to move on. They reply to people who reply to them but they just say more of the same without addressing questions. They are repetitive, saying much the same thing each time but written slightly differently, like someone has a brief to convey a certain idea but has no awareness of context.

I’m probably way off the mark here, but it’s an interesting idea that we could be seeing the work of persona management software in the wild. The messages left on my blog could have been left by people using this kind of system. But they’re probably the work of a particularly witless nasty troll. Thanks for the inspiration for a blog post, dan / fred / wes / dave / ozzy / mark / jane!

UPDATE 2013-03-10

I’ve been checking the troll’s IP addresses at BotScout.com and all but two that I have checked have been known sources of automated comment scripts. It appears that the system being used might not be as sophisticated as the persona management that I talked about, but is instead pre-written comments posted automatically by bots on blogs with welfare-related keywords.

Further reading

The Register: HBGary ‘puppets’ FAIL to convince

The Guardian: Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media

Daily Kos: The HB Gary Email That Should Concern Us All

Daily Kos: HB Gary Federal CEO a Daily Kos Member?

Pastebin: An archive of the troll comments left on this blog – with email and IP addresses

Pastebin: IP addresses used to post troll comments

 

Effective campaigning on twitter: how to avoid spamming

Campaigning on twitter can be frustratingly difficult. You want to persuade people to read your article or sign your petition but they want to look at cat pictures and moan about their lives. You have to grab their attention without annoying them so much that they unfollow you or report you for spam. Read on to see my guidelines for campaigning on twitter.

Unfortunately many campaigners are engaging in spamming. It is common for campaigners to spread links to petitions and articles by @ mentioning dozens or even hundreds of people with the same text and link in each tweet. Not only is this very annoying for people who follow that person who may see the tweet many times, it also fits twitter’s definition of spam and is likely to lead to the account being suspended. I myself have unfollowed quite a few people who I otherwise agree with so as to avoid seeing their stream of identical tweets to other people that I follow.

What defines spam? Here are the relevant rules from twitter.

Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be spamming are:

  • If you send large numbers of duplicate @replies or mentions;
  • If you send large numbers of unsolicited @replies or mentions in an attempt to spam a service or link;
  • If your updates consist mainly of links, and not personal updates;
  • If you post duplicate content over multiple accounts or multiple duplicate updates on one account;
  • If you post multiple unrelated updates to a topic using #;
  • If you post multiple unrelated updates to a trending or popular topic;

I appreciate that this makes it difficult to campaign, but it is possible without breaking the rules and annoying people. Here are my tips.

  • Post your links on your own timeline where people can choose to follow you or not.
  • Time your main tweets for the peak times that your followers are on twitter.
  • Make tweets interesting so that people will retweet them.
  • Put an attention grabbing summary in the tweet.
  • Remember: Links on their own are useless.
  • State what you actually want people to do, eg sign a petition, pass on the story, write to an MP.
  • Post variations of your tweet every few minutes or hours to get attention from people on twitter at different times.
  • Seed links to articles and petitions with just a few mentions to key people that you know are likely to retweet them. Do not do this more than a few times.
  • Tweet your link directly to people who you know are interested or who are waiting for it.
  • If you must mention someone use a new mention not a reply. Do not reply to unrelated tweets with your campaign and do not reply to all other disinterested parties in unrelated tweets.

If you have other guidelines please share them in the comments.

Why government plans to censor internet connections are a bad idea (Updated)

This blog post is a bit late, because government plans to turn on censorship on all home internet connections have just been scrapped. [Edit: not so – see update at the end.] However I know people who are disappointed about this and so I want to give my reasons why I think it is a very bad idea.

A censored connection is already available for those that want it. Mobile phone companies for the most part block access to sites that may contain content unsuitable for children on all new connections. They do this censoring at their end of the connection, before the web page in question ever reaches the mobile phone handset or computer. They will turn off the censoring when given proof of age.

Large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) mostly offer censoring of some kind too. Some such as TalkTalk will block unwanted web pages at their end of the connection in the same way that mobile providers do. Others such as BT, Sky and Virgin provide software to be installed on home computers that will block inappropriate pages within the home but before the end user sees them.

The original plan by government and campaigners was to require all ISPs to censor web pages at their end of the connection such that every device in the home would be censored. The justification is that children would not be exposed to unsuitable material, even in households where the parents have not made that choice. The filtering would happen unless the customer asked for an uncensored connection. However, despite the fact that censorship is an additional feature, I notice the campaigners for the filter have twisted the language. They refer to opting in to pornography but you don’t opt-in to pornography, it’s the filter that is the addition and they really mean that you opt out of that. I think it is important to keep this language the right way around.

Censorship of this kind is fraught with problems. There are several methods of blocking inappropriate content: whitelists, blacklists, keywords, and automatic recognition of pornographic material.

The ideal would be for a computer to be able to look at any given web page and recognise pornography or inappropriate text however computers are actually pretty useless at this. They tend to either allow the inappropriate content to slip through, or block completely innocent content. Most filters end up doing both. Whether recognising the amount of skin on show in images or picking out keywords from the text computers are unable to tell whether what they are looking at is actually sexual / violent etc, or perhaps is a support forum or an educational web site that should be allowed.

Because of this most filters rely on blacklists containing the addresses of web sites that are to be blocked. The problem here is that the internet is vast and always changing and so no-one can list every inappropriate page. Blacklists work to some extent but frequently fail to block pages that appear on a new server and they are easily bypassed using a proxy server (Which is not itself blocked and relays the pages desired) or a VPN. (Virtual Private Network – an encrypted “tunnel” which web pages pass through without being checked.) Blacklists also have something of an all or nothing approach. For example most block whole websites like YouTube and Facebook because some things contained within are more adult. They can’t tell and so they block the whole lot. They also tend to block Google Image Search and even Google Search because Google can show image and text previews from inappropriate websites. Google does have a “Safesearch” option and some filters only allow Google to be accessed if Safesearch is turned on but Safesearch is itself a filter with all of the related problems which that brings.

The harshest method is a whitelist containing just the web pages to which someone has been granted access. This is an extremely restrictive method and involves a lot of frustration when resources cannot be accessed and a lot of work for the person maintaining the whitelist in checking and adding necessary websites.

In practice most filters contain a combination of all of these methods – blacklists, whitelists, keywords and image recognition. The proposed national filter imposed by law would have been just a blacklist, but with government ultimately in control of what websites were put on it. In fact there is already such a list, which blocks child pornography and is run by the Internet Watch Foundation – an unaccountable and privately-run group – and implemented by all the large ISPs. Even this small amount of blocking which few would argue against is flawed and open to abuse. For example in 2008 the IWF blacklisted an image on Wikipedia, a 1976 album cover which depicted a naked child, despite the album cover never having been subject to any censorship or prosecution. As a result of this blocking and the method used by the ISPs to implement the filter many people in the UK were no longer able to edit Wikipedia until the block was reversed.

The IWF blacklist is also subjective and dependent on the personal opinions of a few people who are employed by the IWF to classify images. We are not allowed to see the list or the images and so we must trust that they are only blocking illegal images but there are claims that many images that are not illegal have been blocked too.

This blocking already in place at big ISPs has also been subject to a slow creep into other areas. Courts have ordered the main ISPs to block torrent website The Pirate Bay and file sharing site Newzbin and so these have been added to the system too. Some ISPs like Sky don’t even tell the end user that the site has been blocked, it just never appears on screen. (Try clicking those links to see f your ISP blocks them.) Again, they are easily circumvented and there is even a proxy server dedicated to allowing access to The Pirate Bay.

As an IT manager I once was made to set up a filter at the company where I worked. The filter used a combination of blacklists, whitelists, image recognition and keywords as described above. In addition to pornography it also blocked social networking, games and a few other things which the management felt were being abused by staff. The result was constant stress and frustration both on my part and the part of all the staff at the company. For a month I had multiple requests every day for websites to be unblocked because they were necessary for work. Staff still used social networks, only on their mobile phones instead of the company computers. I was often unable to find important information about computer maintenance and support because it was blocked by Google SafeSearch, which the filter forced to be switched on. After a month management conceded that the filter did far more damage than good and instructed me to turn it off.

A few years ago I was at a conference in the middle of rural Hereford with no transport available. I needed to access twitter on my Orange mobile to send a message to someone but I was horrified to find that it was blocked. I phoned Orange to get the filter turned off but was given only two ways to prove my age to them (Despite it being a contract phone which you must be over 18 to sign up to) – to provide a credit card number or to go into an Orange shop with a passport or birth certificate. I was unable to do the latter since I was stranded far from civilisation, and I was unable to do the former because I did not have a credit card. Orange’s view was “tough luck”. Fortunately for me I remembered that a web browser called Opera Mini happens to have a proxy server on tap, not to bypass censorship, but to compress web pages before sending them to a mobile phone to speed things up and reduce the phone bill. I installed Opera Mini and connected to twitter through that straight away. I hope it is clear from this that the filter was a huge inconvenience in preventing a legitimate use, and was easily bypassed with a little thought.

Many teachers find that the resources they wish to use in schools are blocked by the school’s filters. It is common for teachers to want to use video from YouTube (Such as the excellent Periodic Table of Videos) but be unable to show them in class. I helped my wife to download videos from YouTube (unofficially) on several occasions so that she could make use of them with her class. School connections are usually filtered by RM Education and so there are no exceptions to the filter and sites cannot be whitelisted. School children are not stopped for long by these filters either, swapping addresses for proxy servers as a matter of course.

I hope I have explained why website blocking of this nature does more harm than good. Filters do not work well at all, blocking desired sites and failing to block unwanted sites. They are easily bypassed with a little knowledge (or knowledgeable friends) and in any case don’t apply to other methods of swapping data such as encrypted emails or disks physically handed over or posted. Filters applied to the whole connection affect parents as well as children, and also to people who don’t have children, at least until they get the filters turned off. Last but not least, censorship is available to anyone that wants it simply by asking their internet provider, or even installing free software from Microsoft or turning on the filters that are built in to Macs. Parents are free to use these methods to protect their children although I would never advise trusting such software with your children’s internet access without supervision. I should also point out that smarter children (and those with smart friends) can work out how to bypass the software installed on their own computers.

For all of these reasons I believe that the plan to turn on website blocking on all internet connections until asked not to was a mistake and I am happy to see it go.

UPDATE
Writing in the Daily Mail, David Cameron says [Tech week link] he has hired Claire Perry MP to force computer manufacturers to pre-install software that will ask if there are children in the house and turn on porn blocking software on the computer itself. This is an even worse idea than blocking at the ISP end.

Undead ID cards

ID cards aren’t dead, they’ve just been privatised.

The main feature of welfare reform is replacing a host of benefits with Universal Credit. Not only will those on out-of-work benefits have to switch, but also those on in-work benefits like Housing Benefit and Tax Credits. The DWP want everyone to apply for and update Universal Credit over the internet and part of that is proving your identity through a third party service.

“The identity registration service will enable benefit claimants to choose who will validate their identity by automatically checking their authenticity with the provider before processing online benefit claims.”

The DWP have today announced their choice of commercial providers of this identity service. You get to choose from The Post Office, Cassidian, Digidentity, Experian, Ingeus, Mydex, and Verizon but if you want Universal Credit then you have to do it.

Even more worryingly, the DWP press release states

“The online Identity Assurance model will be incorporated into Universal Credit as it’s developed and rolled-out. Over time Identity Assurance will become available to all UK citizens who need to access online public services.”

The intention is obvious; when all government services require Identity Assurance everyone in the country will have to sign up. A cynical view would be that by starting with benefit claimants who have no choice the scheme gains momentum before other people can object. The “ID card” may be virtual only, but the lack of a physical card doesn’t change the problems inherent in an identity database.

13 November 2012 – Providers announced for online identity scheme [DWP press release]

National ‘virtual ID card’ scheme set for launch (Is there anything that could possibly go wrong?) [The Independent]