New UK ISP porn filter: a tragedy of transparency, privacy and security

Summary:UK government will hold ISP's responsible for filtering internet content to appease a Christian charity. There is no technical or peer scrutiny in filter implementation.

Like a Hammer Horror movie monster that keeps coming back to life for a new sequel no matter how much its death at the end of the first movie makes sense, the UK's government-backed ISP porn filtering plan is back for another predictable round of B-grade nonsense.

On Monday it was announced that Britain's four largest Internet providers (comprising roughly 90% of the market) would be implementing filters to block a range of non-specified adult-themed sites as part of an agreement between the government and a Christian organization.

Ostensibly, this will be so parents can make sure their kids don't see unwanted filth.

The initial announcement was handled so poorly that first impressions in the press made it seem like internet access would be flat-out filtered to UK citizens unless they specifically embarrassed themselves by openly asking to see filthy dirty porn on their computers.

By Tuesday it was explained that the four main UK internet providers would instead be offering an opt-in for filtering only to those beginning new service. Except it's actually not that simple.

Truth of what will happen with this mess is somewhere in the middle, and definitely not as benign as many are now suggesting.

Look at the implementation, and no matter where you stand on porn, I think you'll see this plan is going to cause a lot of problems on its way to the eventual fail bin.

Keep Calm and Carry On - As Big Brother Logs Your Every Move

UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced the details of the plan made in conjunction with Christian charity "Mother's Union" and its published Bailey Report to create measures that will prevent customers of ISPs BT, TalkTalk, Virgin and Murdoch's Sky to access pornographic, gambling, self-harm and other blacklisted websites.

First reports made it seem like customers would wake up and find half the internet missing. In clarifications it was explained that new customers would be forced to choose between regular and decaf internet, while existing subscribers would be "prompted" to make a choice - presumably via email.

In case you're wondering, unlike other reporters on this issue, I refuse to overlook the fact that each ISP has not revealed what is on these blacklists, while at the same time they have all made it clear that their filtering blacklists contain websites beyond the scope of adult pornography. Nor have they defined pornography.

The UK ISP filtering blacklists, and what puts a site on them, are still a mystery.

Do they blacklist, as Guardian's Tom Scott once suggested, Flickr, Tumblr and more?

Still: an opt-in sounds okay, right?

It's being sold to customers as a feature they can activate. However, the devil is in the implementation.

TalkTalk uses a network-level blocking system called HomeSafe, a URL sniffing company that scans all web addresses that users visit (for "malicious software" and blacklisted sites) regardless of whether they have opted-in to the service.

Security researcher Richard Clayton raised the alarm on HomeSafe this May, citing massive privacy concerns and saying HomeSafe could be easily spoofed by criminals. Disturbingly, TalkTalk calls it a "whole home filtering solution" to cover "every device in the home."

UK internet providers BT, Sky and Virgin Media give customers an install disk. The filter is PC-based software that comes on a new CD - a CD that customers need in order to set up their connection.

As we all know, any computer will have everything needed to set up an internet connection. It's unclear what customers are actually installing to their computers.

With the UK conservative government electing to put the onus on the private sector and avoid a public legislative smackdown - and a particularly charged on over the evils of pornography - this has produced a situation where there is a frightening lack of technical and peer scrutiny of the mechanisms being employed.

Combined with a lack of transparency on the ISP's front, everyone (users, consumers, experts and media) are unclear as to what's exactly below the hype and spin.

Oh - And They're Still Inventing The Threat

So while we all know that there are many great options for parents to control household internet content (Cybersitter, Bumpercar and even SafeSearch lock), it's obvious to all of us that an ISP filter is little more than a Band-Aid for what the Christian mothers and the UK government seem to want to accomplish.

I took the time to read the Bailey Report. Make no mistake: I'm a staunch advocate against young people seeing sexualized content before it is appropriate for them to do so.

Yet I was astonished at how much of the Bailey Report is a whole lot of fear mongering about children seeing sexy ads or being sold age-inappropriate t-shirts. And the evils of an internet and technology that the authors are grossly - and in my opinion dangerously - ignorant about.

I ignored the dozens of time the Bailey Report quoted random, unnamed parents about their fears. Instead I took the time to examine what little data the report provided to support its claims, including the bibliography.

Statements made about the effects of porn in the report sound like rhetoric about mail-order smut from the 1950s. What's worse, the Bailey Report's citations repeat the anti-porn hysteria in (Murdoch family funded) Australia Institute's 2009 Flood Report ("Youth, Sex and the Internet").

That the UK government might decide serious issues of privacy, security technology, and youth safety on lunatic assertions based on a 200-person phone call survey summary is pretty shocking. And yes, these are the same people that brought about the Australian internet filter.

So, all things considered - if these people really care about the children, and the people raising them, then they're going to need a better plan.

Or, a bigger boat.

Photo by Mark Ramsay under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license, via Flickr.

Topics: Legal, Security

About

Ms. Violet Blue (tinynibbles.com, @violetblue) is a freelance investigative reporter on hacking and cybercrime at Zero Day/ZDNet, CNET and CBS News, as well as a noted sex columnist. She has made regular appearances on CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show and is regularly interviewed, quoted, and featured in a variety of publications that inclu... Full Bio

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