A slight case of overblocking: the UK web filters are a disaster

Sadly, the UK government chose not to use the overwhelmingly unified voice of the technical community to help them make policy, because "self-regulate or we'll legislate" filtering is now a reality for UK homes.

New customers to TalkTalk and BT, and soon Virgin Media too, will find that unless they explicitly choose otherwise, their connection will be filtered by an unaccountable, ominously-named "third party filtering solution".

The visual language of the filter is quite clear, too –

Look how enticing the "opt in" section is. Natural side of the UI to start reading, encouraging information, coloured button, green tick, green shield denoting 'protection' with the symbolism of a family behind it. The 'opt out' section is denigrated to the far right, in a tiny column, with no further information and an unencouraging plain button.

So, what's actually getting filtered?

For a minute there, I thought that sex education was actively included. No, wait, that's exactly what's happened. Note that 'gay and lesbian lifestyle' is considered 'sex education' – this is likely (though I can't verify) to include sites like PinkNews and SoSoGay. Also note the 'nudity' category, classified as nudity without sexual content – even if you don't actively block sex education content, I find it unlikely that any decent sex education resource is nudity-free, meaning it classifies for automatic blocking on the 'Moderate' and 'Strict' settings.

Sex education should never, ever, ever be filtered. Not ever. Denying children access to resources regarding sex education (note that I'm not talking about porn here – that's another conversation) is outright abusive. And what about resources for the survivors of rape, child abuse, domestic abuse, and similar? Would they be blocked under 'sex education', or the much easier to enable 'weapons and violence'?

The whole concept is flawed

Remember, this is being promoted as a way to block 'the really nasty stuff'. Well, let's get technical for a minute, and consider that. The Internet is a collection of protocols, one subset of which is the Web, which uses HTTP and HTTPS. The filters are designed to block HTTP and HTTPS content.

The problem is something called, in rather lurid terms, 'the darknet'. This is just a collective term for protocols like TOR, I2P, Freenet, and more. These are designed to encapsulate HTTP and HTTPS traffic, rendering it uninspectable to the filter, and allow communication anonymously with remote sites.

Guess what? That's where 'the really nasty stuff' lives.

Now, darknet protocols are not evil; they're used to circumvent political repression in more oppressive regimes, for example. It's like walking down the street in Camden. There are drug dealers openly plying their wares – does that mean that everyone in Camden is a drug dealer? No.

But, the fact remains, the darknet is where any self-respecting child-abusing scumbag goes to do whatever it is that child-abusing scumbags do, and the filters that are being rolled out do not inspect it.

Tin foil hats at the ready

This is about two things; courting votes by letting tabloids make policy – the Daily Mail has been all over this one since the beginning – and control of information flow. When you have a centralised location that is able to control what content the vast majority of the online public is able to see, by selling it as a positive way to 'protect children', you can control what they can read about.

The Government can declare a group a 'terrorist organisation' or 'hate group'. It seems natural that the sites of those groups would be listed in the filters. The question is, of course, what stops them from using that measure against any group that threatens their power or even disagrees with them? We've already seen the Conservatives erase their pre-election promises from the Web, so clearly revisionism is not a problem for them.

They may not do this. Cameron may simply be deluded into thinking that this will end child abuse for good. The problem is, though, that by building these massive filtering architectures, we hand control over content filtering to unaccountable (and unnamed) 'third parties' where before we had the control ourselves.

My own personal views aside, I can understand the human desire to control what kind of content flows into a family home. For years, software has existed to do the same thing that these remote filters are doing, except in the home, and under the control of the family itself. If you want to open it up, you open it up. You don't have to tell a 'third party' that you actively want to access pornography, or information about weapons, or download Justin Bieber's latest abomination.

Some sites should never be blocked

No, it really is that simple. The Samaritans, for example. Childline. Resources for those enduring domestic abuse, or child abuse, or human trafficking. Sex education. LGBTQ resources. There are certainly more. Consider the situation in which an abuser controls the filter, and ensures that their victim is unable to reach out for help.

Conversation is better than silence

The Internet is about free flow of information. There's no actual evidence that pornography has a denigratory effect on children in the first place. Sex education is important to establish the falsehood of pornography and the criticality of consent and respect for partners. Blocking it all is the same logic as abstinence-only sex education; it ensures that when kids find out about it (and I promise you, they will go looking) they get their information from the sketchy sites able to slip through the filter – or, worse, darknet content.

If you're tempted to use these filters to 'protect' your kids, reconsider. Talk to your kids, don't wall them off. Conversations about sex can be difficult, but they are going to come across pornography at some point, and if they have an understanding that their sexual nature is part of being human, that pornography is a staged, false version of sex full of smoke and mirrors, and that in the real world safety, consent, communication, and laughter are all part of a healthy sex life, does it really matter what they see online?

Resist anything that chooses wilful ignorance over education and discussion.