The porn ban: unworkable and unethical

An anonymous insider tells Craig O'Callaghan why he thinks Cameron's ban on pornography should have everyone up in arms

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety" - Benjamin Franklin

This summer, with everyone distracted by royal babies, heatwaves and getting one over the Aussies, David Cameron announced plans for large-scale internet censorship. Blaming online pornography for "corroding childhood", the prime minister announced it will be automatically filtered from UK households and greater pressure will be placed on internet search engines to "blacklist" child and rape pornography terms. People still wishing to access adult content will have to contact their internet provider and ask for the filter to be turned off.

To learn more about the problems with Cameron's proposal, and the potential implications it could have on a free and open internet, The Gateway spoke to a software developer at a leading global company. In exchange for their views, our interviewee requested they not be named.

Doomed to fail

One of the driving factors behind Cameron's plans for "default-on filtering" is an intention to prevent the distribution and availability of illegal images of child abuse. However, as our industry insider points out, "there is next to nothing you can do to prevent two sufficiently determined individuals from exchanging data. The creators of unacceptable pornographic material know they are criminals, and they are very good at avoiding obstacles."

"Solutions already exist, which allow users to 'tunnel' across the internet, making their connection seem as if it originates in a different location in a nearly untraceable manner, usually for legitimate means like protecting anonymous journalists in Middle Eastern countries."

"These are tools immediately available to me, as a mildly interested and law-abiding private citizen. Imagine how much more determined to avoid detection you would be if you were spreading illegal material."

Even content shared away from the secret tunnels of the internet can find its way around filters. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, recently pointed out "extant filtering software performs extremely poorly".

As our insider notes, the methods for tricking filters are also relatively straightforward: "Something as simple as inverting the colours of a picture will fool a filter set up to scan for a large proportion of skin tones. More sophisticated transformations are almost trivial to develop, and the method to 'decode' them is far easier to distribute than the material itself."

As well as preventing the determined distribution of illegal images, this proposal also intends to protect children from accidentally stumbling across age-inappropriate content. However, filtering products of this nature are already available for adults to purchase and install.

The dangers of censorship

Unsurprisingly, free internet advocates have expressed concerns about the state gaining control over what can and cannot be accessed online. We asked our insider if they were concerned about greater internet censorship in the future.

"Absolutely. Once such a system of ISP-level filtering has been instituted, it would be easy for the list of restricted keywords to be expanded to things like 'political activism'."

Signs of this happening are arguably already visible. As digital rights campaigners the Open Rights Group have discovered, the initial list of restricted topics is not solely limited to pornography. Internet users will also have to opt-in to anorexia websites, material related to suicide, terrorist-related content and even web forums.

Given the revelations of Edward Snowden, it doesn't seem ridiculous to suggest those choosing to keep access to terrorist-related content could be subjected to increased state monitoring, regardless of their motivations for disabling the filter. This proposal also means a 'naughty list' will have to exist of those wishing to retain unfiltered access to pornography. Our insider warns, "the potential for blackmail when that list is hacked should be obvious - and, make no mistake, it is a case of when, not if."

The imperfect nature of internet filters could also lead to accidental censorship of important resources. "There have been past cases of hospitals having to disable internet filters when they mistakenly flagged medical diagrams as pornography," says our insider. "There are also fears websites related to LGBTQ rights and support, or rape survivor material, could be unjustly restricted, when they could actually be beneficial to their intended recipients."

A fight for liberty

Supporters of Cameron's proposal highlight the need to protect children from explicit content. The official Conservative website for the plan is even called "Protecting Our Children". While this is a noble aim, to many it is merely an emotive plea to help force through a misguided, ill-informed piece of legislation.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics: busting popular porn myths

The same statistics about the exposure of children to pornography are repeatedly quoted by a variety of media outlets. However, as political blog Ministry of Truth revealed, many of these "facts" are mere urban legends with no accurate source.

  • The average child sees their first porn by the age of 11

FALSE: Ministry traced this particular claim back to a self-published book by Mark Kastleman entitled "The Drug of the New Millennium". When asked about the source of the statistic, Kastleman stated he couldn't remember where he got it from.

  • More than one third of web pages are pornographic

FALSE: This statistic was published by a company that publishes filtering software and was part of a report that was never published, independently evaluated or peer reviewed. Not to be trusted then.

  • 25% of all search engine requests are pornography-related, numbering 68 million a day

FALSE: Scaling these numbers up would mean there are only 99.8 billion search engine requests a year. However, in 2012 Google received 1.2 trillion search requests. For 25 per cent to still be accurate, 821 million searches for pornography would need to be made every day on Google alone. With Google accounting for just over four-fifths of search engine traffic, and an estimated two billion people using the internet, this means approximately 50 per cent of all Google users would have to be searching for pornography each day.

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