The key to cleaning up the internet is tackling the darknets, not letting censorship in by the back door

The key to cleaning up the internet is tackling the darknets, not letting censorship in by the back door

Summary: The UK government's proposals for blocking search terms for illegal content aren't only badly thought through, they're dangerous.


The latest proposals to lock down the UK internet in the name of preventing child pornography are at best a misunderstanding of how the dark side of the internet works, and at worst a basis for a censorship infrastructure that could make the Great Firewall of China look like a leaky sieve.

In an interview with the BBC, prime minister David Cameron proposed that search engines should block certain terms, warning users of the consequences of searching for those terms.

While that's all very well, it's an approach that's not going to stop the real trade in illegal images — which never touches the big search engines, and hides behind encryption and custom-built networks that Peter Biddle and three other Microsoft engineers christened "darknets" in their 2002 paper. That flaw makes the proposals both misguided and dangerous, as the Open Rights Group notes in its considered response.

The problem facing anyone trying to block child porn or online drug dealing is that it doesn't happen on the public internet. Online criminals know what they're doing is illegal, and they'll take complex precautions to hide their locations and the services.

Even back in the late 1990s they were chaining proxy services together in order to hide their locations. I remember working to help track down someone who was trading very nasty materials indeed through a webmail service I was consulting on at the time. We were able to track them down to an anonymising proxy that was hosted in Columbia, and that was where the trail ended — and the technology today is many orders of magnitude more sophisticated.

Silk Road, an anything-goes trading site, is an example of the types of technology that darknets use. It's a hidden service somewhere behind a NAT router, only accessible through the Tor secure internet toolset. Hidden from the rest of the internet, services like Silk Road aren't indexed by search engines, and are only accessible by those who know the secret address, and how to use the technologies they're hidden behind.

While Silk Road is a publicly-known darknet site, there are many, many more that are only known to a small group of trusted individuals, bound together to secrecy in the knowledge that what they are doing is illegal. It's on sites like those that illegal images and video are traded and shared, and bought and sold.

You won't find them in the web space your ISP gives you, or through searches on Google or Bing. They're squirreled away at the end of a DSL line somewhere well away from the jurisdiction of the UK government, in a country with loose regulations, and looser policing. Or worse still, they're hosted in the fast flux DNS of a bot network, distributed across the unwitting PCs of hundreds or thousands of innocent users.

Stopping the web's bad guys is not a matter of censoring the internet. That's impossible. What's needed instead is an international agreement on notice and take down for illegal content, and on shared intelligence about the servers and services criminals are using, with cooperation on shutting down botnets and cybercrime syndicates.

Cooperation vs conscription

Instead of making self-righteous speeches about how ISPs and search engines aren't doing enough, governments need instead to be working with them, and with law enforcement bodies to put in place those much needed international frameworks and treaties that would have allowed enquiries to go beyond that open proxy in Columbia — along with the funding they need to operate.

There's nothing that beats pure intelligence-led policing to break darknets and to shut down criminal trade in images and information. So why aren't governments investing in creating the police units that are needed to handle the complex enquiries that are necessary?

Blaming a search engine or an ISP isn't the right approach here — especially if, as reports from last week are anything to go by, the relationship between government and internet companies is at breaking point.

Legislating for the wrong thing in a fit of short-sightedness may seem to be a short cut to compliance, but it's a very dangerous road to start down.

Blocking search terms, even those that are "depraved and disgusting", is a distraction from the real police work that needs to be done, from building intelligence networks and effective software tools to expose and shut down darknets and the financial engines behind them.

Instead it's a sop to elements of the press that clamour for something to be done, something to protect the children, that fails to even address the underlying issue of the existence of darknets and how they actually operate.

It's a proposal that also puts in place a mechanism for internet censorship that can be quickly used to block other terms that might not be acceptable to a future government — a censorship engine that's similar to those we're telling oppressive regimes to take down. How then can we carry on to claim the moral high ground?

What the UK government should be concentrating on is an effort to break the financial ties that hold the darknets together. Finding who holds the purse strings is a complex task, but it's a technique that's been proven to work time and time again. And perhaps it should also be noted that it's an approach that's well within the capabilities of the powerful surveillance tools that government security agencies have put in place to monitor social connections and financial traffic online as part of their efforts to combat terrorism.

Perhaps then, we can make a modest proposal in the Swiftian sense, and note that this is an opportunity to use the panopticon we've built in PRISM and TEMPORA and all those other codewords for good, letting us see beyond the anonymising proxies, and finally shut down those darknets that lurk deep behind their own encrypted networks. And then we might just leave the ISPs and search engines alone to do what they do best, rather than co-opting them as unwilling engines of law enforcement.

Topics: Security, Government, United Kingdom

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • Yes - thankyou - I'll write a bit on the reflection/extension of our mind

    Self-righteous presentations work to further hide what is really going on and represent at best a control of perception - with a dark and fearful 'unconscious' aspect that is active and pervasive as a kind of atmospheric 'evil' that can be used to differentiate a moral high ground.

    It is all a reflection of our collective minds. The attempt to control minds always and necessarily seeds ingenious self-righteous reactions that then justify themselves over and against the imposition of coercive intent.

    But the agreement to place limits on loveless behaviour is integral to any household that values integrity as a condition in which the power of choosing one's own experience of reality can have a true foundation rather than a deceptive, fearful, reactive and self-judging mentality.

    While the attempt to use perceived evils as basis for moral self-righteousness prevails, any real process of communication and integration can hardly occur.

    The structuring of the Net replicates much of our own mind.
    Mind is a communication device that is also a communing medium. It is being used as a separating and controlling device upon its own virtual reality - and this is before the extension of such a mentality expresses itself in external technological extension.

    We generally censor and stifle the uncovering of our true mind - because we each have such an investment in our persona layer of consciousness - which is the 'consumer face' of the command and control 'back end' that we all play in the dark - unless we essentially are mask-less in our communications.

    The capacity to make false associations regarding specific forms and ascribe meanings to them that are not true and join with others in exploiting such forms with disregard to truth - is so universally active that it is invisible except in the most extreme disruptions to our sense of sanity.

    It is wise to limit the capacity of the lawless - but needs to be in the context of growing an appreciation of the actual law of mind. What you give out is what you get back. Garbage in = garbage out.
    A true moral integrity is inclusive - as indicated in the story of Jesus. It encompasses and yet resolves or heals all polarities in the awakening of the true desire. Until one owns one's choices, one cannot make a different choice - more aligned with one's true peace, well-being and joy in life. Hate, blame, fear and control are all the signs of a mind at war with itself - seeking to validate itself at the expense of another. This self gratification is a kind of darknet that runs unknown to our surface mentality - in our midst.
    I write to witness to that this is so and not to seed fear. Fear is so legion in our society that we cannot see our own minds in action nor the use to which they are being put.
    That which we appreciate - appreciates. And that we we resist - persists!
  • So I can block this article

    by including here in a comment one of the banned words?

    So ZDnet will have to prevent live posting and have software that does the same as the UK government's blocking rules.

    Oh, I forgot - I can ask my ISP to let me see porn, so long as it doesn't portray sex without consent.

    Clearly the people suggesting this are fairly clueless - you only have to see how many words have letters substituted so we all know what is meant? When I was at school, we got around punishment for swearing by omitting vowels (much the same as people have abbreviated things for texting). It will only be seconds before words and phrases that are aliases for the banned subjects crop up.

    In the early days of the net, the school that my kids went to found its web site banned - they went to a school called after a benefactor, who happened to be called Hugh Sexey. And people in the counties/districts of Susses, Essex, Middlesex and Wessex (after Hugh Sexey's Middle School my kids moved on to Kings of Wessex school) found all sorts of legitimate stuff banned.

    I can guarantee that within a few years, the Oxford English dictionary will have a new phrase "doing a Cameron" as slang for some unspeakable pornographic act. And trying to stop that will require ancient laws protecting the freedom of speech of England's oldest universities to be overturned.

    This is the law of unintended consequences - for politicians this the equivalent of Sod and Murphy. In a university electronics lab I knew well, there was a great poster - "engage brain before mouth". But once in public life, the motto seems to be engage mouth before brain.
  • Wise words

    Now if only our government would take heed instead of listening to half-baked suggestions and refusing to deviate from the "Think of the children" line that seems to pervade all of this.
    Little Old Man
    • Top class filter the idiots in zdnet it are running

      I was going to say I'm amazed that the government claims a pop-up box for illegal searches would have any benefit. However I don't know why I was initially surprised, it truly shows the ignorance of my fellow countrymen when people applaud it as some form of miracle cure.
      Little Old Man
      • Did you buy your filter from the Uk government zdnet?

        Everyone knows that porn does not permeate every search result, there isn't porn on every google results page, anyone that thinks or says there is, well they're just scaremongering. There seem to be a vocal few however that excuse the parents or all responsibility for teaching safe-searching, instead relying on the nanny-state to do their job for them. While some are frustrated that their offspring can bypass their security settings, the overwhelming majority believe they should have to, they can be absolved from all blame even though they haven't once contacted their ISP's to understand what is available.
        This brings us onto the more worrying outcome of all of this, the potential for government led censorship. I'm yet to find out how they intend this blockade will work, in my experience it will fail, however who will control the controls? Will we ever know if 'Jihadists R Us' suddenly gets blocked? Will we get a little pop-up box telling us not to be jihadists or like anti-government sites, will it just quietly disappear from the search results? Wikileaks, I'm sure it was here last week????
        Little Old Man
        • The filter rules

          Right, so as one comment, nope, filter it say NO!
          As 3 posts, the filter reconsiders and lets the same text through?

          Really zdnet, that's your filter? Rent it to the UK government, they appear to be on the same level as your it dept.
          Little Old Man
  • Some of this is about awareness rather than enforcement, perhaps

    You're right that the proposals won't take out the people at the heart of this business.

    It seems to me that what they are really doing is drawing a line in the sand about what is legal and what is not. There are definitely plenty of sites with material that is illegal in the UK that are not in darknets but directly available via Google or a few clicks away from Google.

    The average man in the street probably wouldn't know where the legal line is, or how close they are to approaching it as they click another link, and another, and another.

    In the same way that attempts to stop media piracy have done little to stop the hard core pirates, they have done a great deal to educate normal users on where the legal redlines are.

    I believe that this is a worthwhile thing to be doing, as long as it doesn't go beyond censoring what is illegal, and as long as it isn't used as an excuse for not doing the harder work involved on tracking down the highly technically literate criminals at the centre of the market.

    Ultimately there is no purely technical solution to this, and we will have to engage with this debate and use judgement, and be willing to accept that there will be mistakes along the way. But to throw the whole thing aside because it can't be coded up in an afternoon would be a mistake.
    • Which aim?

      Blocking all porn by default? There's no real reason for that, except to protect the poor children of course, but that is what the majority of this hogwash is about. If you notice, they have tagged on a little bit about pop-up boxes against illegal material to confuse the debate. What do people remember, oh this debate is about CP, not about the filtering of LEGAL material. I've not seen a single comment defending the right to view CP, and rightly so, however, many people, such as yourself, are talking about the opt-out filter in terms of cutting down CP. This is false, it's not intended for that at all but the Mail readership seem to think it is.

      The question no one seems to be asking is if CEOP already provide a blacklist of terms for UK isp's (current estimates suggest 95% of isps have blacklist filtering in place), why do we need pop-ups? Does that filter not work? If not, why not and why are you proposing to extend it?
      Little Old Man
      • Two issues

        If you were a parent of a young teen as I am, you would realise the effect of mass availability of porn is having on our children. They are not 'poor' children. Just children. This move could help reduce the easy availability of hard core pornography, enabling our kids to explore their own personal sexuality and be comfortable with their bodies rather than being driven to look and perform like a pneumatic porn star. Or perhaps you think 13 year old girls should be asking for plastic surgery?

        Of course this wont begin to address the issues of the darknet, but it has a point and that point is relevant to millions of parents and their kids.
        • Responsibility of parents

          I understand the concerns of parents, however, do we stop vehicles from using the roads because children are killed in accidents? No - we educate them. We prevent the youngest children from using the road alone and then we accompany them on their first tentative steps until they can use the road as safely as possible.
          I am not a "one handed" browser, but the fact that the government is giving itself rights to decide what I may browse in the future is of a greater concern than someone seeing illegal porn.
          Do we want to protect children from seeing ridiculous porn today, safe in the knowledge that when they are paying tax the information about something like MPs expenses has been censored "for the sake of the children".
  • Politics is about fooling people, not achieving results

    Do they know it will be ineffectual and contrary to the greater good? Yes. Believe it or not, politicians are not stupid and most times they know what they are doing. But they also know what gets success in their eyes, and that is the -appearance- of doing something.

    As long as the voters respond better to appearances rather than results, we will continue to have the same political maneuvers.
    terry flores
  • Dear David,

    This initiative seems to present a timely opportunity for the UK public to register a protest on several fronts, since communication will be mandated to every account holder in the country.
    I have begun work on the exact wording ... to provide enough bite and project utter contempt ... but the gist follows.

    Dear David,
    I should be delighted to support this and several other measures which I will agree to do providing they are all enacted at once and before the next General Election. Enacted as in Parliament bringing new laws into force, policing them and punishing offenders severely. My requirements are:

    1. All public surveillance by GCHQ, NSA and similar agencies not sanctioned by a court order is to cease. An Enquiry will be initiated to see what infractions have occurred and the responsible managers imprisoned for a period not less than 10 years. Cabinet ministers (if any) involved will receive life imprisonment.

    2. Alan Turing will be accorded his rightful place in history, a monument erected to his name in Trafalgar Square (or similar prominent position) and those responsible for his hounding be named and shamed on said monument.

    3. A new Enquiry will be held into banking malpractices of the last 20 years to identify the amount of public money illegally obtained or wasted by risky behaviour. The managers responsible will be imprisoned for a period not less than 10 years and their wealth forfeit to the Treasury. Managers in the corresponding watchdogs will be similarly punished at half the rate. Banks still remaining in business will pay DOUBLE the wrongful proceeds over the next 10-20 years.

    4. Before any further negotiations on the US - EU trade treaty proceed the US Government will agree to set up an Enquiry to determine the extent of tax evasion by global corporations, using the new G20 rules. The offenders will pay DOUBLE the amounts hidden over a period of 15 years for the right to continue in business. Executives who will not state publicly the lack of ethics in this past behaviour whilst taking a polygraph test will be imprisoned for a period not less than 10 years.

    The Enquiry will then spread worldwide to identify wealthy individuals using the same tactics. Firms specialising in tax avoidance will lose their accreditations. Individuals and smaller corporations will be identified on a publicly accessible website.

    [Don't forget to monitor the behaviour of the companies and individuals after punishment. The manpower to do this is clearly self-financing - why not employ the same people who helped with the avoidance?]

    5. Before any further negotiations on the US - EU trade treaty proceed the major US IT corporations will agree to implement a secure DO NOT TRACK and NO ADVERTISING facility in their operating systems and web browsers (in the manner that you seek to implement a pornography filter). The penalty for each infraction to be set at £10,000.

    My proposal has several features in your interest:
    - if you agree you will be re-elected
    - the budget deficit will be corrected for the next 10 years or so (George will be pleased)
    - if the measures are successful I will vote to DOUBLE the salaries of MP's, so you won't have to fiddle your expenses any more

    On the other hand if you do not agree then:
    - you will not be re-elected: no more Wimbledon or tickets to Lord's
    - the budget deficit will continue to worsen, since successive Governments have lacked the spine to tackle the aging population problem
    - I will oppose you and the incumbent corporations on all fronts
    - I will turn my entire computing facilities over to the darknet in an effort to bring you and the incumbent corporations down
    - I will remain a w****r

    So it's the light ... or the dark.
  • Laughable

    They can't even block SPAM, how do they expect to block porn? Politicians think we are stupid and the sad thing is that for most of the voters that is a correct assumption.
  • Unintended Consequences

    Imagine a desperately poor, uninsured young woman (it's obvious I am NOT speaking from the UK, isn't it?) who has been diagnosed with b-- cancer (not taking any chances with the censor on ZDNET) at a charity clinic, and has no way to pay for real treatment. She needs to research the disease on the internet to find someone that gives pro bono treatment, but has no personal internet service, so she goes to the nearest public library. Entering the appropriate search term, she finds the search results blocked, because the library, under pressure from religiously fanatic parents to protect the children from porn, has installed software that blocks ALL users from pages containing certain words, one of which is part of the name of her disease. If the librarian is compassionate, she may get some human assistance, but at the cost of considerable embarrassment (especially if they call the police on her before finding out the "rest of the story" as Paul Harvey would have said).

    The overreaction of not allowing public discussion of some topics, or even the public use of some words, whether online or in the real world, because SOME people discuss those topics and use those words in a way the rest of us consider immoral (OR as part of an organized effort to victimize other people), has the unintended consequence of stifling SERIOUS discussion of social problems that need to be solved, as well as harmless and innocent entertainment.

    Here in the U.S. we have a sport WE call "football" and the annual championship game is called the Super Bowl (for non-US readers). The individual games are referred to by their Roman numerals, and we are currently in the 40's. In libraries with porn blocks such as I mentioned above, it was accidentally discovered that sports fans could not look up ANY information about statistics, players, location, etc. for Super Bowls 30 to 39, because the Roman numeral for 30 is ... right, a flag for extra nasty porn sites! The higher quality filters may have only blocked 30 if they were scanning entire word strings.

    This kind of stupidity about words and symbols is the reason Americans refer to the major divisions of a fried chicken as "white meat" and "dark meat!" Ironically, of course, the "white meat" part of a chicken, since it is not a mammal, does not even have the actual organs in question. And speaking of birds, how about "Robin Redb----"?

    The author is right; filtering software to block PUBLIC access is ridiculous. It could be justified for parents to install on their home computers and all tablets and smartphones accessible to their children (or routers, if there were any sold that could do that), but most psychologists agree that discussion and education are a better approach than blocking. And the threat of these censorship tools being expanded in the future to include political and religious subjects is truly dangerous in a democracy.

    There is even the possibility that we could stop child porn more effectively if the law, rather than ban the finished product, treat it as EVIDENCE of the crimes involved in creating it, and require everyone who receives it to report their SOURCE to the police, or be guilty of obstruction of justice (or "accessory after the fact" to the crime of its production). The only child porn that would escape this would be counterfeit: animated videos, and legal adult port with young looking models advertised as using children. But if no children ARE being used to produce it, then it becomes a free speech issue (over here we have a First Amendment for that, which seems to be under attack anyway).

    Neverland is a wonderful place for children, but some day, like Wendy, we all have to grow up.
  • Petition on 38 Degrees

    Please take a look at this petition on 38 Degrees. It's intended more as a letter/email to your local MP which will probably do more good than signatures, but signing at 38 Degrees only takes a few seconds:
  • Anyone who has ever encountered "Websense" in corp environment

    can attest to how brain damaged the entire concept of examining search terms can be. At one time, many years ago, I was working within a major PC corporation who had decided to use websense. It was early days of the Internet.
    I was working on improving accuracy of soft color display devices, and had seen an ad for a company with the name "Colorific". So, I tried to search for it & visit the web site. Websense told me I was in violation of their search rules, and would not allow me to proceed. So, my employer, because of laziness and lack of understanding, never did see a possibility to benefit from whatever technology that company had to offer. I pondered for a short time what might possibly be pornographic about the term, and could only conclude there must have been some set of rules carelessly set by the Websense company that this term offended.
    I have no basis to believe search term based sensing has any real value at all - maybe I DO want to try and learn which of my neighbors is a registered sex offender....
    And, believe it or not, Websense is still around, and a number of very foolish companies still waste money regularly paying them to provide no value. LOL

    The only reason this dumb law was put in place is because they want to be able to control the internet, they want to be able to block certain phrases or words like meet you for the protest in 10 minutes. They want control of the internet, but they are going to just push more and more people onto the darknet as it is called. Tor is very easy to use and if the government does not pull back and do something that will really affect the supposed child sex offenders then everyone will eventually have a second login after connection to their broadband supplier, they will then be completely anonymous and might then do things they would not have done previously, Cameron and his grab for control of the internet in the UK is going to be his biggest downfall.
    Flubaluba Billandben