In mid-2013, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, began a push to block pornographic material on the Web in UK households. Under the new legislation, porn would be filtered by default and citizens would have to opt-in to view such adult content. Enforcement of such an ambitious initiative comes with many content categorization and technical challenges, not just in the UK, but within any internet service provider infrastructure.
Government Web Filtering in the UK
A common question asked by parents to consumer tech support lines is “How can I protect my children from adult content on the Web that I don’t want them to see?”
In most cases, parental controls or web filtering software is recommended, followed by an explanation on how these solutions rely on block lists to deny access to objectionable websites. Parents may also be introduced to the alternate safe list approach, as a much easier way to control access to web content.
The block lists of most modern web filtering software come packed with pre-determined block lists. These block lists are a result of years of invested research and resources, in addition to third-party security feeds. Even so, detecting all adult web sites is an ongoing challenge. Not all porn sites use the .xxx top level domain, and since it is impossible for anyone to know all of the hundreds of thousands of adult websites that go online and offline each day, block listing can fall short of expectations.
Furthermore, adult content can be found on some of the most widely used websites of today, such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook, and it can be buried deep within a site or hidden behind a log-in. As such, simply block listing the top-level domain (TLD) such as www[dot]website[dot]com may not block inappropriate content nested at a sub-path like www[dot]website[dot]com/2013/photos.
Tumblr is a prime example where an innocent search for content can yield out-of-context results. Imagine the mix of content a teenage daughter might get searching for a “sexy black dress” for prom. This phrase coincidentally, is extremely tough to moderate. zvelo receives categorization requests for tweets, comments and text stories that include this phrase all the time and its use can jump out-of-context fairly quickly. A news story might discuss a movie premiere and how an actress looked “stunning in her sexy black dress,” for instance, which may be safe to view. In the context of porn, however, one can only imagine what a teenager might find “in” or “out of” a sexy black dress.
For the aforementioned reasons, parents are often advised to create a safe list only. If they know the domain names for the websites they feel are appropriate, they can add them to the safe list and block everything else. Over time, new and kid-safe domains can be added as they are discovered. It’s more work for the parents, but it is very effective!
Filtering adult content gets tricky because in most households, there are multiple web-connected devices. There are smartphones, tablets, PCs, gaming consoles and web-ready TVs. It’s very tough for a single parental controls software solution to work across all devices being used, and not all parents are tech-savvy enough to understand how to lock down devices individually.
The UK Government’s Web Filtering Initiative
Considering the many challenges of filtering online adult content, Mr. Cameron’s initiative does make sense. In order to make it easy on parents, web filtering should take place at the Internet source – at the network level of service providers. Filter the connection point and all devices in a household are covered. And to control smartphones and tablets not utilizing a home’s web connection, the filtering would similarly take place at the mobile carrier network level.
Mr. Cameron has said that conventional Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and British mobile carriers shouldn’t allow technical obstacles to impede his web filtering plans. Considering the content categorization challenges mentioned, technical obstacles are sure to impede his plans.
British service providers may also likely be required to devote their own time and resources to dynamically filter web porn because, as of this writing, Mr. Cameron hasn’t suggested any government funding. There are plenty of social obstacles to overcome as well. Lee Maguire of Britain’s Open Right Group says that in his experience, web filters could never distinguish “between sites that seek to titillate and those with frank discussion of sexuality” as is common on educational sites.
Domain-level blocking is like playing a massive, confusing game of “Whack-A-Mole.” Great numbers of domain names are registered every single day. Many more become inactive, or become registered to another entity. A surprising number of domain names linked to porn websites don’t have useful strings like “porn,” “sex,” “fetish,” or “erotica.” And blocking the .xxx top level domain only blocks a minority of porn sites.
Blocking web pages with certain keywords in their code can be counter-productive, too. A massive number of scientific, educational and health-related web pages contain words like “sex,” “homosexual,” and “breast,” among countless other keywords that could be mistaken as porn.
Wikipedia Co-Founder, Jimmy Wales, criticized Cameron’s plan. “When Cameron uses the example of pedophiles who are addicted to internet porn – all that those plans would do is require them to opt-in. It’s an absolutely ridiculous idea that won’t work…We should be devoting a significant proportion of that to dealing with the real criminal issues online, stealing credit card numbers, hacking into sites… that is going to take an investment in real, solid police work.”
The Open Rights Group claims that Cameron doesn’t only want to block pornography, but other objectionable content such as pro-anorexia sites, violence, alcohol and smoking. When web filters have been implemented in schools and public libraries, there have been complaints about church websites being blocked because of references to wine, and anti-smoking websites being blocked because of references to tobacco.
If Cameron’s web filtering program works on the content level, then even this very blog post has a high probability of being blocked. Adult consumers could opt-out of the web filtering program via their ISPs. But the Open Rights Group says that consumers tend to accept defaults, and that Cameron’s “nudge theory” may be taking advantage of that in order to influence people’s decisions.
Cameron proposes that the web filtering program would take affect by late 2014, for newly registered mobile and ISP accounts. If I was in a British household with ISP level filtering, I could easily get around it by using free proxy servers and VPNs, but that is another discussion for a future date.
Few technical details have been released yet about how Cameron’s web filtering will work. Only time will tell how the Prime Minister’s plan will unfold, if at all.
Kim Crawley is a security researcher for the InfoSec Institute, a security training company specializing in CCNA training, and a contributing writer for zveloBLOG.
1. Oliver Wright. (July 22, 2013). Family Filters Won’t Block ‘Soft’ Porn: David Cameron Retreats in War on Internet Porn, Admitting There Will be ‘Problems Down the Line’. independent.co.uk. Retrieved November 6, 2013 from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/family-filters-wont-block-soft-porn-david-cameron-retreats-in-war-on-internet-porn-admitting-there-will-be-problems-down-the-line-8726991.html.
2. Ed Paton Williams. (July 30, 2013). A Quick Guide to Cameron’s Default Internet Filters. openrightsgroup.org. Retrieved November 7, 2013 from http://www.openrightsgroup.org/blog/2013/a-quick-guide-to-camerons-default-internet-filters.
3. Jemima Kiss. (August 2, 2013). Jimmy Wales: David Cameron’s Porn Filter Idea is Ridiculous and Will Fail. Theguardian.com. Retrieved November 8, 2013 from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/aug/02/jimmy-wales-cameron-porn-filters.
4. Charlie Cooper. (August 21, 2013). David Cameron’s Plan for Internet-porn Filters ‘Risks Hurting LGBT Community’. independent.co.uk. Retrieved November 8, 2013 from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/david-camerons-plan-for-internetporn-filters-risks-hurting-lgbt-community-8778956.html.