Friday, 26 July 2013

The Internet Is For Porn


This week, David Cameron announced that all British Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will have to block access to pornography by default opt-in. This means that anyone wishing to view porn will have to specifically tick a box asking for access, or they will find it is blocked. This is despite the viewing of such content being legal, and despite the fact that the user has paid for access to “the Internet”.

The government’s action comes after a concerted campaign by the Daily Mail and by one of his MPs, Claire Perry (who happens, by coincidence, to be my local MP). They believe that “unfettered” access to pornography is damaging young people, robbing them of their innocence and informing them as to how they should treat women and how to conduct relationships.

It’s not hard to sympathise with this view. Although all of the “studies” that I’ve seen of the impact on children of viewing hard-core pornography have been flawed from a scientific perspective, as a parent I too worry about how my son will learn to behave, both in public and in private. But I don’t believe knee-jerk reactionary policy change is necessarily the way to go about it.

Moral outrage is a great catalyst. It’s not such a good fuel. It tends to blaze angrily, consuming everything in its path while the root causes of problems hide and fester in its shadow. In the case of internet pornography – as so often with these issues – this solution to this issue is a social, not a technological one.

The Porn Machine
Claire Perry has been angering ISPs and tech types in general by claiming that internet porn is easy to block and that ISPs simply lack willpower. But neither of these things is true. The internet, contrary to the belief of some politicians, is not just a “series of tubes”. In fact, it’s not a “thing” at all. The internet is the result of multiple public and private networks, all independently managed, being connected together to allow the traffic of information. And that’s just the physical part.

Across the wired (or wireless) connections between and within networks, data flows in a number of protocols (think of these as roughly analogous to languages) and through different ports (these equate to mailboxes in an apartment building). When we connect to an internet site, our web browser sends a message out to ask where the site is, then it sends a request to the site for the web page. These requests are written in the “language” of the recipient (the first is in the “web address lookup” language – DNS, and the second is in the “browser request language”, http). Each also goes to the appropriate port on the target machine. Sometimes, these requests are encrypted (for example, when the web address starts with “https”). This means that the content is completely meaningless to anyone except the sender and recipient.

Millions of these calls will be taking place between an internet user’s system and the internet. Each one goes through the ISPs equipment, which helps direct each request and response to its appropriate destination. A lot of these calls are happening without the user even knowing (for instance, to deliver email or for the internal maintenance of programs running on your PC).

So what’s the problem with just blocking porn sites? Well, how do you identify a porn site? The only way is for a human being to visit the site, decide for him or herself that this is porn, and add it to a list. This is how all of the blocking software works. It depends on someone else having already visited the site before you, decided it’s naughty, and added it to the block list. From then on, whenever you send a request for a web page through your ISPs equipment, each message will be intercepted and checked against a list of sites, and if it matches, you’ll receive a response that tells you access is blocked. Inevitably, new sites will pop up and during the window between the site appearing and the administrators finding it, it will be fully accessible to users. And porn sites appear in their thousands every day. Many are automatically generated without human involvement on brand new domains that are linked to from other sites, often ones which aren’t pornographic. And when we introduce the human error factor, we also end up with sites being blocked that are completely legitimate.

So when we say "we are blocking porn", what we mean is that we are asking unknown and un-qualified individuals around the world and from different cultures to assess material which is legal under UK law, and to use their moral values to decide whether it should be classified as pornography and therefore, blocked.

And even this isn’t the whole story. ISPs can only block requests that look like requests. It is possible for a user to do something called “proxying”, whereby requests for a web page are directed through another web page (think of the post office redirecting your mail). This facility exists in every web browser, for perfectly legitimate technical reasons which I won’t cover here. All you have to do is find a web proxy (and there are thousands of free proxies available on the web) and send all your requests through there. The porn content is then delivered back to the proxy and the proxy passes it back to your browser. Often, the content is encrypted, which means that with the best will in the world, the ISP can't tell what you were looking at, or where it's come from.

I don’t believe for a moment that a child who is accessing the internet without adult supervision and has found porn sites is then going to find it difficult to hear about and set up a proxy connection. The current generation of teens are, by and large, far more tech-savvy than their parents. And there are a hundred other ways of bypassing web filters as any technical person will tell you.

The reality is that all internet providers supply customers with blocking software for parents to use to protect their children to at least the degree that the ISP could too. Home routers also come equipped with the ability to filter sites, and to restrict internet access to certain times and to certain computers or other devices. If parents aren’t using these, it’s either because they don’t know how to (in which case, ISPs (and the government) should try harder to educate them), or they aren’t bothering to set it up. In the end, it is as much a parent’s responsibility to control what their child accesses on the internet as it is to stop them watching pornography on the TV in the sitting room. The internet is simply a means of delivery of data, and some of this content is inevitably going to be harmful. A responsible parent should not allow unsupervised access to the internet unless they are certain that there is no way of the child being exposed to such material.

Hedge Porn
When I was a child, there was no internet. There was something called “hedge porn”, dirty magazines discarded by truckers and found in hedges and fields. We would prize these items like gold, carefully prising apart the rain-sodden pages for a glimpse of boobs. We’d hide them in secret locations, visited again and again. How would access to this material have been controlled back in the 1970s and 1980s? Random stop-and-search on all trucks? Regular sweeping of hedgerows by community action groups? In the end, it’s in a child’s nature to be curious. It’s the role of the parent to regulate this curiosity through a combination of education and supervision.

Along with the statement about the opt-out on pornography, the government also stated that search engines (and they singled out Google in particular) should make more effort to “block offensive search terms to find child pornography”. This, again, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. How do we identify such terms? Do we cover all human languages, or just English? How many variations of terms are there?

In the end, there is more than one way of finding something on the internet, and there is more than one search engine. Do we know that paedophiles habitually use Google to search for child pornography? Aren’t they smart enough to use different search engines or different search terms?

The thing is, Google (and other companies) expend huge effort to detect, block and remove child pornography from the internet. It’s not in their interest to act otherwise. I remember when the World Wide Web first emerged that all manner of material could be found, often by complete accident. The web is a very different place now. How many of us have ever accidentally found child pornography, even on an adult website? I certainly haven’t.

The reality about the purveyors and consumers of this kind of material is that they are a very secretive and cunning group of people. They don’t operate in plain sight. All the people caught via Operation Ore and the other high profile police operations in the last few years were obtaining material through encrypted channels, via locked websites whose details were exchanged privately and not, by and large, visible to search engines. They were convicted through credit card records obtained from within the servers of the websites hosting the material, and also the images and videos held on the users’ own machines. I am not aware of any instance where the key means of prosecution was the user’s web search history (in the case of April Jones, the murderer had been searching for terms related to child pornography, but there was nothing to indicate these searches had led to the material subsequently found on this computer, nor were they the key element that secured his conviction).

The Deep Web
Sadly, the removal of child pornography from the web has merely driven the majority of paedophiles underground. Technologies (again, perfectly legitimate ones) exist to create a whole virtual layer over the internet, colloquially known as the Deep Web. This encodes and shares data between sites in such a way as to make content invisible to users of the internet, unless they are equipped with software to access this content. Such technology has been invaluable in countries where free speech is controlled, as it allows users to communicate freely with no means of interception by other parties. Unfortunately, it also allows users to store pretty much whatever they want – bomb-making instructions; child pornography; stolen credit card details – with little fear of interception. Police and other agencies are infiltrating these networks, but their very nature means that tracing individuals is extremely expensive and time-consuming. Some people will never be caught.

Again, this is not an issue of the internet being the problem. This is a social problem. Instead of concentrating on the medium of delivery, we should be concentrating on the source. Every picture or video of child abuse is a record of a real and horrific act that an adult perpetrated on a child somewhere in the world. Organisations such as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) and the Internet Watch Foundation have been successful in not only removing content from the internet, but also using the content to locate and arrest those individuals who create and distribute it. And yet the government has done nothing to increase funding to CEOP over the past two years, which equates to a real-terms budget cut. According to Jim Gamble,former head of CEOP, sufficient intelligence exists to arrest many individuals but lack of funding prevents this from happening. Because the light of moral outrage is shining in the wrong direction, paedophiles hide in the shadows. As he points out, what is more important - trying to identify people looking for pictures of child abuse, or stopping abusers doing it in the first place?

Moral Outsourcing
If we really want to protect our children from harm, then we all have to play our part. We shouldn’t forget that our role as a parent is primarily that of a protector and that we are personally responsible for the safety and well-being of our children. Equally, those we elect into positions of power should be driven not only by the need to be seen to address moral outrage, but also by the will to actually change things for the better. As long as we have politicians who care more about been seen to do something than to actually do it, nothing will ever change.

At the start of this post, I noted that the government’s drive to block online pornography is designed to stop porn influencing children in their attitudes to sexuality, morality and the objectification of women. So to whom should they look for an alternative influence? To newspapers who use headlines to broadcast their version of popular morality while featuring teenagers in bikinis and "nipple slips" on their inside pages? To a government who sees no conflict between defining moral behaviour and driving thousands of people into poverty? To the church, who think morality cannot exist without religious belief to underpin them (and turns a blind eye to abuse within its own organisation)?

We must stop outsourcing our moral values to everyone else, and start taking responsibility for ourselves and our own children. If not, as parents, what exactly are we for?



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