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Concern as UK Government Ponders ISP Block of Twitter and Social Media

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 (4:46 pm) - Score 1,662

A recent debate in the House of Lords on the forthcoming Digital Economy Bill has raised significant concern that the Government may be trying to censor social media websites (Twitter etc.), unless they adopt Age Verification. Otherwise ISPs might be forced to block them.

Last month we reported on the Government’s highly controversial decision to introduce a radical, if somewhat expected, change into the DEBill that would force broadband ISPs into the mandatory blocking of all “adult” websites (here); specifically those that fail to offer an adequate method of age-verification for their visitors.

Under the new approach the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) would be given powers to make Internet Service Providers (ISP) restrict access to pornographic sites that fail to put “tough age verification measures” in place to protect children. At the time we warned that the vague definition of “adult content” extended beyond porn and left open the possibility of mission creep.

Sadly Tuesday’s debate appeared to confirm that the Government may indeed be on the verge of adopting one of the most bonkers approaches to overzealous Internet censorship.

The situation began after a Bishop and several others called on the Government to clarify whether its porn blocking stance would also apply to naughty pictures / videos and “abusive behaviour” on social media platforms. The Bishop explained it best.

The Bishop of Chester said:

“Finally, I have a question for the Minister. I would like him to comment on what the expectations are for social media sites like Twitter, which can themselves host user-generated pornographic content. The expectations on commercial pornography websites are set out pretty clearly in Clause 15, but will the Minister please clarify how the Bill as drafted will impact on social media sites?

Clause 22 starts to cover this with its reference to “ancillary service providers“, but in Clause 22(6) the reference is restricted to business activities so provided. Evidence from the Government to the Communications Select Committee on 29 October was as follows: “Twitter is a user-generated uploading-content site. If there is pornography on Twitter, it will be considered covered under ancillary services“.”

In response Lord Ashton, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), admitted that “discussion on prohibited material … is a complicated area” and said that “free speech is vital,” before adding that “we must do more to ensure that children cannot easily access sexual content.” Unfortunately “do more” seems to equal going too far.

Lord Ashton said:

“The Government believe that services, including Twitter, can be classified by regulators as ancillary service providers where they are enabling or facilitating the making available of pornographic or prohibited material. This means that they could be notified of commercial pornographers to whom they provide a service but this will not apply to material provided on a non-commercial basis.”

In fairness there has been some understandable unhappiness at Twitter’s decision to allow members to post porn on its network, while other social networks (e.g. Facebook) do have rules against the posting of such material or to prevent certain levels of hate speech / personal abuse. Even Twitter has some rules when it comes to the latter, although it’s very difficult to enforce such things when you have millions of members.

At present anybody can view Twitter’s content, which is much the same as every other public website on the Internet. The platform is also used by far more business people, celebrities, news media, politicians and ordinary folk than the tiny minority using it to spread boobies or penises. But in terms of free speech, Twitter’s influence is not to be underestimated or trivialised and that’s true of almost all social media.

The suggestion therefore is that Twitter could be blocked by ISPs unless it suddenly starts requesting a significant amount of additional personal data from users, at least enough to help them pass the Age Verification requirement (either that or they stop showing porn).

This is assuming that anybody can actually figure out how to make a reliable Age Verification system work, preferably one that doesn’t include having to hand over personal details to potentially untrustworthy sites in order to gain access.

All of this is unlikely to go down well on Twitter, where members went into a virtual riot when asked to input their phone numbers, which is hardly a surprise given the endless news stories about hacks and personal data breaches. Today’s news of Yahoo!’s 1 billion accounts hack is a good example of why giving away too much verifiable data online can be very dangerous.

Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, said:

“The Government started with age verification, moved onto web censorship and now wants to block Twitter accounts. While these proposals are damaging for free speech, they are also absurd. Some Twitter accounts could be blocked for being associated with a porn site while others will be freely able to share pornography to Twitter users of any age.”

Forcing users down the Age Verification path, even on websites that aren’t commercial or porn focused, is also a very good way to go about killing off a modern Internet content business. No doubt the protectors of old media (printed newspapers etc.) may well celebrate and those who hate Twitter might join them, at least until their favourite websites go the same way.

Google also shows naughty pictures on its website and you can stop this by enabling “safe search“, although that is incredibly easy to circumvent and the “safe search” feature may not meet the Government’s new BBFC linked requirement. But many people do not want to be forced into handing over more of their personal data to Google or any other site, just to get access.

The Government would do well to temper their approach with a dash of reality. As the UK Internet Service Providers Association said, “Instead of rushing through this significant policy change, we are calling on government to pause and have a substantive discussion on how any legal and regulatory change will impact the UK’s dynamic digital economy and the expectations and rights of UK Internet users.”

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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.
Leave a Comment
10 Responses
  1. Mike C says:

    I’m trying to think if I moved to China at some stage in my life?

  2. Bob2002 says:

    Cleanfeed was BT’s anti illegal pornography blocking system – the start of active content censorship in the UK(introduced in 2004).

    You may think Cleanfeed is designed to prevent viewing of abuse images, that’s how it’s sold to the public – it is not. It is designed to prevent *accidental* viewing of abuse images. So it does nothing to stop actual criminals, it wasn’t designed to.

    The huge importance of Cleanfeed was not stopping criminals – but crossing the Rubicon from a UK where ISPs did not examine and censor your traffic to one where it did. And of course, once the principle of censorship had been established, groups started applying it to other areas like copyright … I felt we’d end up here back in 2004.


  3. 3G infinity says:

    The important text is “This is assuming that anybody can actually figure out how to make a reliable Age Verification system work, preferably one that doesn’t include having to hand over personal details to potentially untrustworthy sites in order to gain access.”

    Until such time please can parents be made responsible for what their children do on the internet.

  4. Darren says:

    Still trying to police the unpoliceable! Really!

  5. dragoneast says:

    The Devil makes work for idle hands. Can’t work out whether that’s the politicians or the pornographers. Probably both.

  6. Wise Old Owl says:

    The problem as I see it is simple.

    Most content is hosted overseas and outside any UK law and all of the technical solutions to date are easily circumvented. They sell this on stopping inadvertent access nothing more because they don’t have anything else. It wont stop kids accessing porn one bit or any other content for that matter, it will simply end up being driven further underground. Kids will get access but parents will sit at home thinking all is fine because their Government has told them this kind of legal filth is blocked by their ISP.

    The hashtagging (Digital image fingerprinting) solution on images is a step in the right direction and thankfully the Internet Watch Foundation and content operators are using that, which in some cases will see a huge reduction of shared images online.

    That then begs the question – if that technology is working? If the IWF blocking is working then why are they seeing increased issues of illegal child images being hosted, shared online? Rather than reductions.

    If it’s working today Why then does the Government see the need to legislate a mandatory blocking regime?

    Because MP’s are ignorant and will simply vote in ignorance on something that they ‘perceive’ will work rather than something that actually will.

    It’s a disgrace that this country is allowing our politicians to censor us in this way.

    1. dragoneast says:

      Surely, because “the country” (that is, most people) want politicians to “censor us in this way”. Out of laziness, pure and simple. Each of us, individually, have to learn how to deal with porn (as every other evil we might encounter in life). Or expect someone else to do it for us. We just get what we ask for.

      Ever since there have been rulers (and religions), they’ve tried to make us good. They haven’t succeeded yet, and it’s a sure fire bet they won’t in the future, either. They might well make us worse, though. (Just a pity the Bishop never apparently felt the inclination to become acquainted with the teachings of Jesus Christ though).

  7. Peter says:

    Anything that blocks Twitter is excellent news
    Furthermore anything that can block out the extremist comments on Youtube plus all the fake videos on it would be even better.

    1. timeless says:

      while l agree fake news should be blocked along with extremest videos should be blocked whenever l hear of censoring mandated by the government there is always one eventual destination, it wont stop at fake news.. the wording is so ambiguous that it wouldnt stop just there.

      there is potential for it to block non-news sites like blogs some of which actually post legitimate content which the government disagree with but none the less is true.

  8. Harry says:

    Sticks and stones may break my bones but words are just a hate crime.

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