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.

Poppies, police and protest

The messages shown here were all sent out to the public through twitter today by the Metropolitan Police. All I will add to them is this:

Protest is a right stemming from freedom of speech, assembly and association. The Met are suppressing it. People do not have a right not to see anything upsetting. And most of all, human rights exist in part not to protect the popular opinions, but to protect those that are hated by society and are at risk from them.

https://twitter.com/#!/CO11MetPolice/status/134927822333542400
https://twitter.com/#!/CO11MetPolice/status/134928477819371521
https://twitter.com/#!/CO11MetPolice/status/134933010033291264
https://twitter.com/#!/CO11MetPolice/status/134939558814035968
https://twitter.com/#!/CO11MetPolice/status/134940638813753344
https://twitter.com/#!/CO11MetPolice/status/134975106672902146
https://twitter.com/#!/CO11MetPolice/status/134975543916494849
https://twitter.com/#!/CO11MetPolice/status/135020192702009344
https://twitter.com/#!/CO11MetPolice/status/135021436120207361

Atos had CarerWatch forum suspended over a five month old link

I hope that by now you are all aware that Carer Watch had their support forum suspended by their server host after Atos made threats to the host regarding libel action. I wrote about this in my previous blog post.

Carer Watch have at last received a reply from Atos as to exactly which messages were considered libellous.  You can read the message from Atos and the response on their blog. The reply is baffling. The message in question is dated March 23rd, 8:51 pm – that is, over five months old. Not only that, but the message does not even contain anything considered libel, but merely a link to an article on a different website entirely. That article is still there, even though Carer Watch’s forum is not.

This whole situation raises several problems. First of all, a hyperlink to an article is not and should not be considered libel. It is merely pointing people to that article. If libel action is necessary, it should be aimed at the article containing libel, not at the sites linking to it. The legality of hyperlinks to libellous articles has not yet been settled.

Secondly, the Carer Watch forum is a private discussion forum. As such, messages posted within are available only to members. This is very different from publishing something on a public-facing websites. It is the equivalent of conversation, not of publishing. We must also ask, how were Atos made aware of the message that they have deemed libellous? Did an employee of Atos deliberately sign up to the Carer Watch forum to look for such messages? If that is the case, then that raises all sorts of questions over the behaviour of Atos. Who else are they spying on? Atos is a private company, but contracted by the government. Atos has power but not responsibility such as to the Freedom Of Information act.

Thirdly, the forum was suspended not by any court order or judicial oversight, but merely by sending a threatening letter to the hosts of the forum. It is an unfortunate fact that when faced with a letter from lawyers, most internet providers and server hosts would rather switch off the (potentially) offending website rather than ask for proof or give their customer any chance to fight the accusation. In the case of Carer Watch the letter from Atos was not passed on to them, and in fact they had to fight to find out what they were even being accused of. It is not acceptable that a whole group can be silenced, and prevented from associating with each other merely at the whim of a letter from a lawyer and an uncaring internet provider.

This situation is by no means unique to Carer Watch; websites are taken down like this all of the time. This issue is a small part of the larger problems surrounding libel and the issue of libel reform has become very important. I urge you to visit libelreform.org and read more about these problems, and sign their petition.

And then a step to the right

If there’s one thing riots are good for, it is allowing politicians to introduce more authoritarian and right-wing measures as a knee-jerk response.  After a disaster of any kind it seems that a large section of the general public call for extreme measures in response. Calls to lock people up without trial, shoot them, deport them, and now to take away any state benefits and evict them from social housing. Today the government e-petition site announced “The e-petition entitled “Convicted London rioters should loose all benefits” has now passed the threshold of 100,000 signatures and has been passed to the Backbench Business Committee to consider for debate. It will continue to be available for signature once the site is re-opened.

Many politicians seem no different in their response. In fact any shocking emergency situation provides them with an opportunity to pass harsher laws. Examples include the USA PATRIOT act, brought in in the aftermath of 9/11, which gave US authorities extensive powers of search and surveillance as well as allowing easy detention and deportation of immigrants. Here in the UK we had the crackdown on gun ownership after the Dunblane massacre, and the extension of pre-charge detention to 28 days following the London 7/7 bombings. Then there are ID cards and the national identity register, and control orders which keep people under house arrest for years when there is not enough evidence to prosecute them in court.

In the last ten years the Labour government was responsible for introducing many authoritarian laws and eroding our civil liberties by quite a large amount. The Conservatives have largely been against many of these laws and for the protection of civil liberties. In June David Cameron said “The right hon. and learned Lady should understand that this is all about proportionality and making sure that we have a system that helps protect people while respecting civil liberties.” The Conservatives have professed to be against detention without trial, ID cards, and the over-use of CCTV. In practice, once in government they have not rushed to repeal any laws and there has been little improvement.

Social media

Since the outbreak of widespread rioting and looting in the UK the Blackberry Messaging Service (BBM) and social networks, especially Twitter, have come under fire in the last few days as the primary means of communication for those that are involved. TechCrunch has a good explanation of how these people use BBM which I recommend that you read, and I won’t repeat here. Unfortunately the news media and politicians seem to have seized on this use of modern communications methods and papers like the Daily Mail and The Sun have even blamed Twitter for much of the looting. I was particularly annoyed to see journalists asserting that passing on images and reports from the scenes of the crime amounted to encouraging the crimes. Many of the photographs and tweets to do with the riots where actually from journalists who were there, and while twitter allowed these to be spread a long way in a short time, the same photographs and tweets later formed the backbone of newspaper and television reports! It is almost as though traditional print and television news media are just jealous of the speed of social networks.

Nonetheless, there have been widespread calls among the news media, general public and politicians for BBM and/or twitter to be turned off during riots to deprive the criminals of a means of communicating. Today in parliament several MPs continued these calls and one MP even called for mobile phone masts in the area to be switched off. David Cameron stated that switching off twitter and BBM was the direction that we should be taking.

It should be obvious why this is a bad idea. These networks are not there for organising criminal activity. They are there for communicating. Just like landline telephones and the postal service, they can be used to talk about any activity, good or bad. If they were removed, it would impact on all sorts of things. The riot cleanup movement on twitter would not have got started. It would have an impact on all sorts of business. People rely on those communications networks to stay in contact with family for support and with the emergency services. Frightened people hiding in their homes over shops as they are attacked could be cut off from their only support if social networks were switched off, and from any means of getting help at all should the mobile networks be shut down. Sick and disabled people rely on these communications methods not just for support but for their very sanity.

Politicians should also note the example that they would be following if they did shut down communications. Dictators in Egypt and Libya shut down internet and phone networks to hide the attrocities that they were committing. It didn’t have the desired results, either. The whole world condemned those countries for their actions and the people found other ways to communicate, with all the more drive to remove their governments. China places severe restrictions and censorship on its internet connections. Twitter is frequently used to spread evidence of wrongdoing and brutality by the police, and videos taken and uploaded during protests have been used in investigations into killing by the police. This is not something that we want obstructed, although, of course, it might be something that the police would like stopped.

We already have censorship of internet connections here in the UK. ISPs already block any website on the list provided by the Internet Watch Foundation, sites which they deem to contain child pornography. A recent court case has seen internet providers ordered to block websites that index files available for download, and it is quite likely that the system in place for the IWF list will be used for this too. Our internet connections are already censored, the courts have ordered more sites to be blocked, and now the government are talking about turning off social networks on the whim of the police.  Add the comments made in parliament today and you can see why this tweet seems so believable.

[blackbirdpie id=”101625203901202432″]

This tweet was taken as genuine by many people today. The problem is, it isn’t so far from reality. Don’t be fooled though; the “@skynewsticker” account is actually a spoof account set up to provide humorous insights. The genuine account is @skynewsbreak. And Cameron wouldn’t talk to China about it, because Chinese web censorship is mostly done using American technology.

I have a strong preference for our communications networks not to be shut down, even to help stop criminal behaviour. If the government has to resort to cutting off communications to retain order, that is indicative of deeper problems.  Amnesty International has concerns about this too.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:

“Human rights are not an inflexible, blunt instrument designed to prevent the police from protecting people and thwarting crime. However, any decision to block or limit access to social communications must be legal, proportionate and have a legitimate aim.

“It is legitimate, in specific circumstances, to stop people using social media to plan violence and crime. Freedom of expression is not an unlimited right and can be subject to regulation where risks are legitimately perceived.

“But David Cameron must ensure that the fear engendered by the recent riots and the determination to ensure that there is no repeat or escalation of the events of the last week, does not result in a knee-jerk reaction which curtails freedom of expression in a disproportionate way.

“Governments in other countries such as China, Iran, Syria or the United Arab Emirates notoriously inhibit access to communications networks and resources within their countries. Embarking down a road of curtailing free access to the internet and other networks is not a decision the UK authorities should take lightly and it is vital that any censorship does not inhibit legitimate forms of non-violent protest.

“We will await the outcome of the discussions with interest.”

We must keep in mind that once freedoms are given up, it is rare for them to return. At least, not without a revolution. Once it is standard practice to turn off communications for riots it will become accepted practice during legitimate protests too, especially since the public and the government will frequently disagree about what is legitimate protest. We must not let this become acceptable.

Mocking Parliament

Quick Version: The Daily Show Global Edition can’t be shown in the UK this week, because it contains footage from parliament in the context of humour and satire. (Long version at New Statesman.)

WHAT????!!!!

We can’t mock parliament? What happened to free speech? You know, that human right that has to apply to everybody or it doesn’t work?

Well screw that. Here’s the stuff that can’t be shown. I am not sure if the rules on this apply to internet video and blogs or not, but if it breaks the law, so be it.

And just in case you haven’t seen it, this is my video that might break the law too.

Freedom to be offended

Freedom of speech. An absolutely essential human right, and yet it seems to be such a difficult concept for many to grasp. People think free speech applies to themselves and no one else. Anyone that opposes them is fair game to be silenced.

To paraphrase Morbo the news monster, “Censorship does not work like that!”

According to reports, yesterday Facebook removed the EDL’s page. The EDL Facebook page had been “Liked” by some 80,000 people, and was frequently home to comments showing racist, bigoted views and discussing some quite disgusting concepts and behaviour. Even so, I cannot celebrate its removal. How is it right that people on the left complain when Facebook pages for anti-cuts protests and events are removed, yet celebrate when the same thing happens to the EDL?

In discussions about this some people have pointed out that the EDL page hosted discussions of illegal behaviour. It might have done. “Hate speech” is now illegal in the UK. Beating up people and harassment are illegal too. But is it right to shut down discussions, even of illegal behaviour? That sounds like thought crime to me. We have a right to freedom of association, to freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. By extension, we have a right to hold whatever opinions we want, even if they are repellent to most people. Surely freedom to associate with whoever we like must mean that we have freedom to discuss whatever we like? How can discussion of a crime be a crime? Even if someone is discussing plans for a crime, they have not actually done anything, and I believe they should not be arrested until they show that they are about to commit those actions and not just fantasise about them.

I must also point out that the various Facebook pages set up to organise anti-cuts protests have also sometimes discussed illegal behaviour. Civil disobedience in various forms often means breaking the law – by definition illegal! Yet people rail against the removal of these pages by Facebook but demand the removal of the EDL page. It does not work like that!

The issue of government censorship versus private censorship is a problem. Facebook is a privately owned platform and many people are quick to point out that freedom of speech does not apply as everyone that uses it had in theory to agree to the terms and conditions. This is true, but while in law obligations to facilitate free speech usually only apply to government, I think when a service becomes as large as Facebook and a de-facto standard, different rules must apply. While we have private services that host so much public discourse, this is something that we must address. I suspect that censorship on private services happens as much out of a fear of being sued as of a desire to shut down opposing views.

I worry that here in the UK we are losing our freedom of speech. We have the European Convention of Human Rights, but right-wing politicians like to blame it for all our ills and demand that we scrap it. Now we have laws against hate speech, and I can see the reasons for preventing harassment and bullying, but if those are already crimes, why do we need laws to make it illegal to voice disagreement with someone?

Ultimately, freedom of speech applies to all or it applies to no one. There is no middle ground. If someone decides to censor what some people say, then there is no guarantee that anything at all can be said. Someone somewhere has to make the decision on what to censor, and that decision will be shaped by their own opinions and political views. The alternative to freedom of speech is suppression of dissenting views by whoever is the most powerful. If you have a view that the establishment doesn’t like, you cannot celebrate censorship without endangering your own cause.