Why internet blocking will not protect our children

2 Parents watching Tv presuming their son is safe on the Internet in another room
A parent will always be the best protection for a child on the Internet. Image CC:By-NC-SA OllieBray

In the last few weeks a campaign has come across my screen a few times. It is called “SafetyNet” and is being run by Premier Christian Media and SaferMedia. The campaign aims to gather enough signatures to convince the government to leglislate so that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must “[block] pornography at network level whilst giving adults a choice to ‘opt-in’ to this content”.

The website and FAQ document are full of statistics which – as with any statistic – cannot really be argued with. These range from the percentage of UK households with internet access to how many children regularly access explicit images on their home computer. There are also a bunch of sound bite quotes to join the dots between these facts and the aims of the campaign.

As said, facts are facts. If a USA survey says “1 in 3 10 year olds have accessed pornography online”, I’m not going to argue. I’m not altogether sure why 73% of UK households having internet access adds to the problem this campaign is trying to resolve but I don’t doubt the figure is correct. What concerns me are the conclusions and the way they are trumpeted to convince people to sign the petition.

Perhaps I should introduce why I feel I can write about this. I am a UK Christian parent (so therefore fit neatly in the target demographic for this campaign), my children are between 5 and 9 years old and thus are well within the group this campaign seeks to “protect”. I am also someone who works with and understands the “network level” Internet this campaign talks about. I have been building hosting webservers and websites since the mid 1990s and I still do. So not only am I one of the people this campain targets I am also one of the ones who understands the technology involved – by the sound of it I understand it better than they do.

### Why this won’t work

The title of this piece is provacative but I believe it is true. Forcing an ISP to “block pornography” at “network level” is unworkable, unsafe and dangerous. Here is why..

####How do you define “pornography”?

You can’t (as the campaign does) try to get away with a dictionary definition because we are dealing with parents here who may well have their own idea of what is appropriate for their child to view. Limiting it to just ‘the explicit representation of sexual activity’ may not be enough. As an example if that were all that was being blocked I still would need to check what my 8 year old was stumbling across on Google images at which point the “protection” is not coming from the blocking but from me (as it does now).

####How do the ISPs determine what gets blocked?

Certain websites will be obvious by their name/domain but is the campaign really so naive as to expect the site owners to be scrupulous in what they call their websites? Also what of images provided through otherwise innocent websites? Google images for example has a safesearch option. Set that to “off” and your child will get a bit of surprise. But as the images are hosted and served by Google, the ISP cannot block them. So using the vaunted “network level” blocking, the explicit images can still be viewed. Other sites will be similar. In the end the only way for an ISP to properly block explicit content is to do it on an image-by-image, video-by-video basis. To do that they’d have to employ a lot of people. Given the constantly changing nature of world wide web content, this is something I cannot see any ISP being able to do properly.

####Blocking is never 100%

Anyone who uses filtering or blocking software will tell you that things slip through. Don’t believe me: how about your eMail spam filters? How about your anti-virus software? If they are so good why are you still supicious of links in eMails you weren’t expecting? If you are not supicious, you should be. Let’s look at Google images again. Google are huge, they dwarf any ISP by comparison and yet they still don’t guarantee that safesearch will hide all explicit or offensive images, they have a “report offensive images” link on their search results. If Google can’t make any guarantees how can I be sure an ISP would block everything?

Network level blocking means blocking sites and images before they get to your house. Such things already exist. I use a free (and very good) service called OpenDNS which – among others things – allows me to have it block websites that either declare themselves as “adult” or have been reported as such by other users of the service. Such sites are blocked before they even get down my phoneline. So this is pretty much what the campaign is asking for. It doesn’t work. Well that’s not true, it does work just not 100%. Google images is not blocked and other sites which have mixed content are not always blocked.

The point again is that even with Google images safesearch on strict and OpenDNS I still have to monitor what my children surf. Again the “protection” for my children comes from me not any blocking.

#### It’s all or nothing

The campaign allows for the fact that adults can request the ISP blocking is switched off. This sounds fine as long as all the adults use one connection and all the children use another. But that’s not how the world is. Those 73% of UK households with Internet access probably have a single main connection for each household. Many of them almost defnitely have a mixed range of ages using the Internet. So if a parent wants the blocking switched off, the child gets it switched off too. ISP blocking at “network level” is by defnition all-or-nothing. Now you may argue that parents should not be watching such content if they have kids. But I’ll wager they do and if they have the blocking turned off, the children the campaign seeks to protect are no longer protected.

I’m not here to tell other adults what to do and by the sound of it the campaign doesn’t want to either but if an adult wants it turned off (and I doubt this would be something the ISP would want to keep switching on and off on an hourly basis) then it’s off for the kids and again the “protection” that should be provided by the blocking will have to be provided by the parent (as it is now).

####It gives a false sense of security to parents

You’ll have gathered by now that this is my main point. The campaign raises concerns which all parents whose children have Internet access should consider. But the solution offered is poorly thought through. As you have seen above, ISP blocking will still require a parent to monitor what their kids are surfing. This is good and I wholeheartedly agree that a parent/guardian is the best protection for children online. As parents we should be interested in what they are doing whether online or not. But what worries me is that this ISP blocking idea would cause a lot of parents to stop paying attention (or pay less of it) to what their children are doing online. It would give a false sense of security. Lets revisit the anti-virus analogy. Anyone running a Microsoft Windows PC should run anti-virus software, that is a given. But just having it there does not mean you will be “safe” from malware, phishing or other nasties. Ask anyone who supports Windows PCs and they will tell you that you are only as good as your last update and also just because you have software which the manufacturer promises will protect you (no matter how much you pay for it) you still have to be vigilant. It’s the same with blocking or filtering. The model is flawed. It does the best it can under the circumstances but it’s flawed.

###Don’t sign it
In the end all of the above shows that ISP blocking would still require a parent to monitor/participate/be involved in their child’s online activity. That means the blocking is next to useless. Even if you presume it will help or do some of the job for you, you still run the significant risk that your child will find an image, video or site that you’d rather they didn’t. Sadly pornography is part of our culture and so is the Internet. But the Internet does not work like a TV, radio of a shelf of magazines in the newsagents. It’s different and it needs to be handled differently.

The SafetyNet campaign might have the safety and protection of children at its heart but its using the wrong tactics. Those tactics will not help vulnerable children any more than an 18 certificate on a DVD will. Educate parents, get them to speak to their kids, help them. Don’t try to scare them into signing up for a law which a) won’t get passed and b) would be worse than good if it was.

Filtering, blocking and other such technologies can help a parent, but in the end, technology cannot protect our children, only we can.

> **Update – 12 March 2012** I’m not the only one who thinks this campaign is a bad idea. There are also some good points raised here: [http://marnanel.dreamwidth.org/237955.html ](http://marnanel.dreamwidth.org/237955.html)

5 comments on Why internet blocking will not protect our children

  1. We often see policies and programmes and ‘initiatives’ from politicians and officials who should know better; should know, bluntly, that what they’re doing is unworkable and often very damaging.

    …Or would be, if they had the elementary competence to actually do any of it.

    So why is this nonsense so common?

    I take a view that there are people with agendas that are damaging – usually, they have rationalised away the damage ‘for the good of The Cause’, but retain sufficient grasp of reality to know that they cannot be fully frank about their motives to a wider society; and there are people who are best described as ‘useful idiots’.

    It might be useful to start putting names to this campaign: identify who’s fronting it, and who’s backing it, and ask: “What do they gain?”

    You probably won’t dig very far before you find the usual suspects for policy initiatives promoting intrusive surveillance and a camera on every corner; illiberal and authoritarian conservative Christians; copyright drones with a dangerously relaxed attitude to intrusive data-driven censorship; profiteers with a commercial interest in surveillance-enabling technology; and, quite possibly, swivel-eyed obsessives with a side-serving of alien abduction and Napoleonic delusions.

    The cynical question is: which of these supporters would be the most effective tool for discrediting the whole initiative?

    Which, in turn, leads us to the darkest depths of cynicism: I do not believe that this – or any other bad policy – can be defeated or driven back by a discussion of its merits. It has no merit – merely profit or the promotion of an unstated and unwholesome agenda – it is gaining support on its emotional or tribal appeal, and it will succeed or fail in media-led politics… With all the counterproductive stupidity that this entails.

    In these terms, the most effective responses involve exposing the interested parties and discrediting them and their interests; and, over time, making their names and their causes ‘toxic’ to the next bad policy, and the next one after that.

  2. IMHO the time has come for a hardware based content blocker. By all means incorporate an algorithm to help avoid new content, but the mainstay of the unit would be to list all unwanted pages and just not allow it in to the viewing device in the first place.

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