Thursday, May 18, 2006

Nul Points to the Royaume Uni..

Strangely little attention seems to have been paid to a rather significant written answer in the House of Commons, reported by that fine organ The Register.

"The government has given internet service providers until 2008 to block all access to websites containing illegal images of child abuse listed by the Internet Watch Foundation.

In a Parliamentary written answer on 15 May, Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker said progress had been made, but hinted that if the last paedophile services were not snuffed out of circulation soon the government might take steps itself to block people accessing them.

The industry-funded IWF had already seen a drastic drop in the number of illegal sites reported to be hosted in the UK, from 18 per cent in 1997 to 0.4 per cent in 2005.

All 3G mobile operators blocked access to paedophile sites over their networks, while all of the biggest internet service providers, representing 90 per cent of broadband domestic connections, were also willingly blocking access."

There is an awful lot of fudging going on here. Yes, the IWF has been staggeringly successful at removing child porn HOSTED in the UK. Those figures are true. This is not least because virtually all UK ISPs receive the IWF URL list of illegal child porn sites, and take action on it, since otherwise they would be liable to action as publishers on notice of illegal material under the EC E Commerce Directive.

But that doesn't mean there's any less kiddy porn out there. Au contraire, it just means it's hosted in other countries than the UK, where the laws are kinder or less well enforced: noteably the US, where hate speech, eg, still thrives under the protection of the First Amendment, and the outlaw lands of the former Soviet Union.

What the government are talking about here is enforcing, not takedown of child porn sites within the UK, which is indeed almost accomplished , but upstream censorship of all feeds coming into the UK so no one in the UK can access illegal porn from sites *outside* the UK. This access-filtering and blocking can be done very efficiently via the technology BT Internet have already implemented, known as Cleanfeed and which has already been rolled out by "agreement" (since many of those who sign up to BT wil know nothing of Cleanfeed and what it does) to those who signed up to get the Net via BT.

Now all this is OK so far, you are no doubt saying. If you want a child porn free feed so that eg your kids or partner can't get at it, then signing up with BT makes sense. Anyone else still has the ability to go to another UK ISP. And if it's illegal to possess child porn (which it is in almost every state in the world now) then why not command your ISPs to block it at source, so no customers can get at it?

Because - and this is to me a rather more immediate worry than the net neutrality debate - any filtering technology dependent on keywords or a URL list, that can efectively block all kid porn access, upstream, invisibly - and which is mandated to do so by the government and MUST be installed by every ISP - can very easily be extended to block any content AT ALL coming into the country that the government finds unlikeable. As also revealed by the parliamentary question,"The Home Office had admitted that it had considered blocking websites that "glorified terrorism" under the Terrorism Act (2006). It said it was not policy to require ISPs to block content, but added: "our legislation as drafted provides the flexibility to accomodate a change in Government policy should the need ever arise." (And there is some rumour that the govrnment had considered blocking "terrorist" material before this law ever came into force, and which thus may not have been illegal at all at the time.)

I'm no free speech nut, but that last sentence quoted sends chills down my spine. This is the technology that could turn us into China, tomorrow, and the nice bit is, most non-techy people would never even notice. Banned books get headlines, banned newspapers get marches in the streets : banned websites, or pictures, disguised behind the ubiquitous error messages of the Net, rarely get noticed. And while Google providing a censored service to its customers in China dominated the tech press in the US for weeks, here, the UK - the state, not a private company - proposing China style censorship tools as part of compulsory legislation for all ISPs, doesn't even seem to have made the BBC website. (And remember . we aren't China : they don't have to use these tools to close down sites abraod that are politically dubious. They could use them to block P2P downloading sites, or sites flogging warez, just as easily.)

Anyone else feel even a tad worried?

2 comments:

Alison Scott said...

What you need to look at is the legal process that the Government has to go through before blocking particular sites. Have they got this far through legislation, or coercion? If they're in the 'do this so we don't legislate' mode, then your only protection is how far ISPs will bend without breaking.

If on the other hand it's a regulation, then you at least have a bit of legislative process to hang objections to.

I think the Government is currently taking the view that child pornography is in a different class to all other objectional material, and nobody is particularly keen to argue otherwise. Whether they will later extend this to other objectionable material, I don't know. It doesn't to me seem that the world has come to an end because it's easy for Brits to seek out material that would be illegal here on the Internet.

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