ISPs Blocking Porn Sites Is a Total Kick In the Nuts

By Stuart Houghton on at

The UK Government has a plan to clamp down on the scourge of internet pornography, protecting the innocent by requiring ISPs to adopt an 'opt-in' policy. Service providers will filter out offensive material and require their customers to ask for permission to access adult sites. If it works, parents will be able to rest easy about their kids using the web and pornography, while the majority of us will be taking a kick to the nuts. This will please anti-porn campaigners, moralists and -- by happy coincidence -- perves who like seeing things get kicked in the nuts.

It is a bold scheme, sure to anger free speech advocates; put a lot of pressure and expense on UK ISPs and -- crucially -- not work at all. Here's why...

The first thing you may be wondering is how the ban will operate. Which sites will be blocked, and how? Will the filtering be effective? What would be really useful is some kind of test rollout so we could see how it will work in practice. As luck would have it, a very similar filtering system has been in effect for several years on UK mobile networks. So, how is that working out?

Not great, admittedly.

All the UK phone networks have some level of filtering applied to the internet access they provide over 3G. None of the filtering is mandatory, but it's turned on by default, meaning you will receive a warning page telling you if a site has been blocked as adult content. A recent report by the Open Rights Group (ORG) highlighted some serious problems with the way mobile internet is filtered -- problems that will just as easily apply to a broadband porn block.

There are two main ways to block porn on the internet. You can use a content analysis system that looks for things like images with lots of flesh tone or certain keywords, or you can use a blacklist of sites flagged as offensive and simply block access to them. The former is expensive and doesn't scale well outside a small organisation or network. Trying to analyse the traffic of a big ISP would require an impractical level of computing power.

The second is cheaper, more scalable and is -- predictably -- the option that the UK ISPs have gone for. The key problem, as identified by ORG, is that too many perfectly-innocent sites are being added to the blacklists, either accidentally or maliciously, and that there is no way to re-enable access to these sites without opting out of the filter altogether.

Worryingly, some of the sites that are erroneously blocked are political in nature, or concern free speech and privacy. Some of these sites may have been submitted maliciously by opponents, others...well, who would want to block the village green goings-on at this site? (Answer: Orange and T-Mobile)

Is it because it's in Middlesex?

You don't have to be a twitching porn addict to think that there may be a problem here. Firstly, blacklisting restricts access to legitimate websites that do not contain any adult content. Secondly, it doesn't catch every site. There is simply too much porn around.

Net filters don't seem to take into account one crucial fact -- adult sites *want* you to access them.

Porn sites make money two ways -- by selling physical products (e.g. DVDs & site memberships) or by selling adverts, both of which tend to work better when people can actually see the site in question. Do we honestly expect them to take an attack on their business model lying down? (So to speak.)

Sure enough, TalkTalk's HomeSafe web filter recently failed to block popular onanism behemoth Pornhub in what looks like a case of a porn provider deploying countermeasures against filtering systems. TalkTalk is currently rolling out HomeSafe to its customers in an attempt to get on-side before the Government can make mandatory filtering law.

Whether you are a dedicated porn aficionado; would like to eradicate every square centimetre of bare flesh from the interweb, or lie somewhere in between, it should be clear that internet filtering has some issues.

There is a further problem too -- one that has been highlighted by several major reports into online safety including the 2008 Byron Report. Nobody wants young children to be able to wander through page after page of adult material at will, but relying on an opt-in filter effectively removes the responsibility for looking after your child while he or she is online, and places it on the shoulders of your ISP.

Talking to your kids and supervising them while they wander the web is the best way to stop them from being confronted with adult material, as well as keeping them safe from chatroom grooming, Facebook ‘Skins-style’ parties and all the other tabloid horror stories.

My ISP can't even stream Countdown at a reliable speed. I'd rather not leave it in charge of my kids, thanks very much.