The Closing of the Net  "original and valuable"  Times Higher Education

 Usually I would expect to feel pleased when a prediction I made comes true. But this time, I feel rather sad and it’s why I’ve struggled to write anything as a new year posting.  I’ve been  following the content filtering  agenda since 2008 and saw it coming. One of the reasons why I write Iptegrity is to inform the debate because  filtering is the one thing that I believe above all is a threat to free speech and a most dangerous step to take.  

Whatever the implementation, content filtering is a form of censorship and filtering systems are mechanisms that the censors of old, such as the Spanish Inquisition or the Tudor monarchs, would have greatly envied.  Whatever the problems with the Internet – and I accept that they do exist – mass filtering systems are not the way to go. Yet, in 2014, content filtering and content restrictions have risen high up the political agenda.

 In the EU,  net neutrality is under attack in  the telecoms policy debate as mis-informed policy-makers want to allow nework providers to do side-deals on content, and here in Britain we are actually facing a regime of filtering, In the guise of ‘parental controls’,  that will block many websites, including my own. If we combine the two, we will have an Internet limited to a half dozen large corporations, and small websites will be invisible to the vast majority of people who cannot afford the unlimited subscription,  rendering many-a digital business model bankrupt.

Ever since I first understood what filtering technology could do, it was evident to me that this is a very dangerous  form of automation. It  has the power to determine what we can and cannot read or access just with one tick in a database,  and control will be in a very few hands. Oversight will be almost impossible.

 Sadly, it seems to me that those taking the decisions have not gone to the same trouble to understand the systems they are baying for. They seem to be under the delusion that is possible to put up a block against an offending piece of content in the same way as one might put a physical road block. They fail to understand the complexities of the network, and that a ‘block’ is not a one off, but a continuing cycle of surveillance, checking, flagging, diverting and dropping.

 There are millions of websites out there, and we are talking about a system where one person or organisation will be in charge of which ones can be allowed and which are blocked. Is anyone really so naïve as to believe that someone will check them all diligently?

 Unless that organisation has the resources of the Chinese government to employ 30,000 people to check the sites and approve them, it will be a matter of seconds for a tick in the box, and more likely, a tick for whole categories of sites, not individual ones. 

 And yet, the ‘parental control’ filtering system will be mandatory for every adult in the country, unless they opt-out. If they opt-out they face the shame of being declared a dirty old man or woman. It therefore stands, that what is blocked in the ‘parental control’ filters, will be blocked for every adult in the country.

 As it stands, in Britain, the content filtering is being outsourced by government to industry, and in turn by industry to a series of sub-contractors, so that we have no idea at all who is even putting that category tick in the box. As a result, we can expect to find whole swathes of sites have been blocked.

 A number of websites have already been identified (by the Norwegian blogger Peter Hansteen) as blocked by the parental control systems, including some of the big technology websites such as Slashdot, Linux Today,  Arstechnica, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and even the veteran campaigner for parental controls, the Daily Mail itself ( evidenced in this tweet).   Even some Wikipedia pages are blocked, according to another tech blogger. And astonishingly, the Conservative party may have scored an own goal since its own website apparently  falls within the default blocking category ( ie it will be blocked to all adults), according to the Open Rights Group. There are others who have posted in online comments and forums  that their site is blocked and they do not know how to get it unblocked ( one example is in this New Statesman article).

 I only know that Iptegrity  is blocked  because I checked it using the O2 url checker,  before O2 took the checker down. So if you are reading this in the UK, you’ve obviously not yet had the shutters – sorry parental controls – slammed on you yet.

I also checked some other sites on the O2 url checker  including Index on Censorship, EDRi, La Quadrature du Net, and a wine bar called Champagne Charlies (also reported on RespectMyNet.eu)  and they were all blocked. If it were not for the latter, I would have said this was politically-motivated censorship.

 In any event, it has gone  way beyond a case of over-blocking. Over-blocking is where a specific, targetted block is put in place, but it has the effect of also blocking content that is not targetted. With the UK parental controls filtering system, it is a case of database blocking that, on the basis of the evidence available, has been implemented in a non-targetted, non-specific, overly-broad manner, without regard for any form of societally-agreed criteria, and egged on by interests who have bullied  politicians and industry.

 Quite honestly, it does not matter whether the blocking decisions are taken by a backroom geek  or, as in Tudor Britain, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the effect on the content producer is the same.

 Children will not be any safer  but the country will be more ignorant and ultimately poorer.

 I would call on O2 and every other provider to unblock my site and all the others, and issue an apology. I think they should. But what are the chances realistically?

The reason is that industry does not care. It has had this filtering system foisted on it by an ill-informed government that has failed to do due diligence, and industry wants to to it as cheaply as possible. Industry believes that it has done what has been asked if it gets a third party in and the third party says, yes our system will protect the children.

Ask no questions… Welcome to censorship.

Happy new year!

 This is an original article from Iptegrity.com and reflects research that I have carried out. If you refer to it or to its content, please cite my name as the author, and provide a link back to iptegrity.com. Media and Academics – please cite as Monica Horten, 2013,  Welcome 2014 – happy filtering!   in Iptegrity.com  9 January 2014. Commercial users - please contact me

Tags: parental controls, O2 url checker, censorship, website blocking, content filtering, pornblock, O2 parental controls, Cameron's internet filter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten, European expert on Internet policy and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics & Political Science. She is an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee on Cross-border flow of Internet traffic and Internet freedom (MSI-INT). She was shortlisted for The Guardian Open Internet Poll 2012. Iptegrity  offers expert insights into Internet policy. Iptegrity has a core readership in the Brussels policy community, and has been cited in the media. Please acknowledge Iptegrity when you cite or link.  For more, see IP politics with integrity

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