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UK Online Safety Report Finds ISP Website Blocks Unsuitable for Tackling Porn

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014 (8:24 am) - Score 1,731
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The Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which examines the expenditure, administration and policy of the Government’s related department, has published its latest (6th) Online Safety report and found that website blocking by UK ISPs was “highly unlikely to be a suitable approach” for tackling adult pornography or violent material on the Internet.

The report, which looked at everything from illegal Internet child abuse material to legal porn and violent content, welcomed the recent efforts by major broadband ISPs to introduce voluntary network-level filtering measures (Parental Controls / Active Choice+) and encouraged all providers to do the same. On top of that it called upon Ofcom to monitor the implementation of this filtering, as well as the “degree to which they can be circumvented“, and report back on its “level of success and adoption“.

At the same time it also separately praised the Internet Watch Foundation’s (IWF) joint effort with ISP to block illegal child abuse content (this has been used for many years and should not be confused with the recent anti-porn measures; though the technologies involved are all basically the same). But the report warned that such tools were “blunt” and that extending this approach to other material, including some adult sites, would “face challenges both of scale and cost“. The report highlights a response from BT.

BTs Response to Calls for an Extension to the IWF’s Remit:

In the absence of clear primary legislation from Parliament, or an EU-wide legislative instrument, BT does not wish to police the internet beyond preventing access to illegal material. To do so would set an unfortunate precedent in which an ISP would become the arbiter of taste and decency in relation to online content. It is not for an ISP to be placed in such a position.

Legal opinion informs us that filtering any internet material on home broadband or public wi-fi may be illegal under RIPA 2000 and that this is so even if the purpose for filtering is child protection, and even if the internet user has chosen to set up filters.

BT has raised with government the potential conflict between network level content filtering and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA 2000). We would expect to receive clarity that our employees and or those of our wi-fi site partners would not face a criminal prosecution under RIPA 2000 by offering filtering activities to our wi-fi site partners for blocking unsuitable content from reaching vulnerable individuals.”

Overall the Online Safety report agreed that extending the IWF’s powers beyond illegal content would be a step too far, although it also said that blocking should still be “considered as a last resort for particularly harmful adult websites that make no serious attempt to hinder access by children.” As usual this depends upon how you define “particularly harmful adult websites“, which is often a matter of personal interpretation.

Extract from the Online Safety Report

We believe that, as part of its existing media literacy duties, Ofcom has an important role in monitoring internet content and advising the public on online safety. However, we are anxious to avoid suggesting a significant extension of formal content regulation of the internet. Among the unintended consequences this could have would be a stifling of the free flow of ideas that lies at the heart of internet communication.”

Elsewhere the report also touched on the errors that Internet filtering / blocking services often encounter (e.g. over-blocking and under-blocking), such as those that result from websites being incorrectly categorised by an ISP or general errors (e.g. blocking IP addresses for a single website that can be shared with other safe and legal websites).

Comment from the UK ISP Association (ISPA):

The vast majority of consumers in the UK now have access to a whole-home filtering solution, with all the largest ISPs investing heavily to offer free parental controls to their customers, a successful example of industry action. We support the committee’s conclusion that filtering and technology cannot fix this issue alone, with education and parental mediation essential. However, it is important to note the challenges of cost and scale faced by smaller ISPs in implementing a network-level solution and the fact that their customer base are primarily business focused or more tech-savvy.”

Finally the report agreed that the availability and performance of Internet filtering solutions must be “closely monitored“, both for “efficacy and the avoidance of over-blocking“. It also called for measures that would make it “easy for websites inadvertently blocked to report the fact and for corrective action to be taken“.

Broadly speaking the report appears to have been conducted with a fairly level head and reached some reasonable conclusions, which will no doubt irritate those MPs that persistently call for stricter controls and mandatory censorship of the Internet.

However there were also calls for a greater use of online Age Verification systems, which remain largely unworkable outside of fallible Credit Card Verification (CCV) methods and not every website wants to hold their readers financial details (security nightmare); unless they’re selling products. It’s also questionable how this approach can be applied to the global Internet, where businesses might not be entirely UK focused.

NOTE: It’s important to reflect the difference between how the IWF and new Parental Control services work. Both are voluntary filtering / blocking systems but at different levels. For example, end-users can choose to disable the new network-level filtering (Parental Controls) services against legal content but they cannot directly disable the IWF’s separate blocking of illegal content if the ISP has already agreed to use it (i.e. an extension of the IWF’s remit to include porn would be akin to default Internet censorship of legal content).

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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