August 01, 2013 | Jim Killock

Diane Abbott responds on web forum blocking

The word about the breadth of nudge censorship or default filtering is spreading. Categories such as "web forums" may well be pre-selected when adults enable filters.

diane_abbott_cc-by-nc-sa-birmingham-museum-and-art-galleryOn a cycling forum, members who are rightly worried that their forum may be blocked by default filters, Skydancer posted a response he was given by Diane Abbott:

I do not believe that the arrangements to protect children from hard core porn online will affect a forum to discuss cycling! I think that men, who think that viewing hard core porn without let or hindrance is some kind of human right, are deliberately exaggerating the effect of the suggested arrangements

I asked Diane Abbott about this, and to her credit she replied. The conversation was private, so I won't quote her replies, but I think it is common knowledge that Diane believes that default filters are more effective. I think it is also common knowledge that she is prioritising child safety and wants everything done possible to block children's access to pornography as something very seriously harmful. However, in the statement above we are clear that she has made a factual mistake. Forums and social media are very likely to be the target of default parental filters.

The question for Diane Abbott should be, given categories like web forums are likely to be blocked by some of the filters and any box is very likely to be pre-selected, does Diane believe these sites should be blocked by default? Or does she not care?

But it isn't just her policy. Claire Perry and David Cameron have taken credit for it, and the ISPs have agreed to it.

Let's define the intent as:

To limit access of children to pornography by maximising the number of households where pornography is blocked for children

and examine the “nudge censorship” policy against that.

Problem one: breadth for adults and children

The "pre-selected" categories may include very broad types of content, such as "alcohol, drugs and tobacco," "social media" and "web forums". The impact is broader than just "pornography".

Let's measure this purely against the objective above. Firstly, it is irrelevant to it. Secondly, if web filters appear to be blocking too much content, there is surely a danger that some parents will simply switch them back off, not least because their children constantly ask for sites to be unblocked.

Problem two: collateral damage

Collateral damage in this case means yes, climbing and cycling clubs, pubs, bars, being blocked. We can add mistakes to this as well.

Collateral damage is something that any sensible policy should minimise, from a public policy point of view. It is no good to say "your climbing club is worth less than my child", a decently designed policy should aim to meet the needs of both.

Problem three: commercial sites want access to their market, adults want access to porn

This is a problem where the outcome is difficult to predict. If 30% of your potential market is suddenly lost to you, as adults in households with children find porn blocked, then these publishers may go to efforts to get it back. This might make filtering less effective, we don't know. One can imagine apps being a means to distribute, for instance. Perhaps pornographic spam will become more popular, reaching children indiscriminately.

Equally, adults who find pornography blocked are placed in a difficult situation, where the outcome for children is again unpredictable. Perhaps irresponsible parents will simply switch the filters off, leaving vulnerable children even more vulnerable. Perhaps, if filters were targeted at children, and aimed to keep adults out of them, this would be less of a worry.

What we are dealing with is software design, not social engineering

What I am getting at is that government insisting that certain ways of setting up a software system, like specifying that categories are "pre-selected", that buttons must say "next", that filtering must be network based, is simply to make a category error.

Government has an objective, but is negotiating the form of the user experience as if it had omniscient knowledge of user behaviour. It doesn't – it has a few gut instincts. It needs to separate the objective of limiting children's access to pornography from the means to deliver it, especially as we get into the details.

In government policy terms, it is extraordinary for Claire Perry and David Cameron to be staking their reputations on whether or not boxes are "pre-selected" and whether forced choices (active choice) is better than a kind of default option.

Lawrence Lessig famously said that "Code is Law", meaning that the operations of machines increasingly determine social outcomes, such as automatic content identification and DMCA takedowns.

Without really knowing why, politicians are stumbling on this concept, and becoming amateur software UX (user experience) designers. Unpredictable consequences will ensue. Please sign the petition!

Footnote: interestingly, Richard Thaler did his best yesterday to distance himself and the Number 10 unit from these proposals. I am not sure if he is correct (maybe this is 'bastard-nudge') but he clearly doesn't want to be associated with "nudge censorship".

Comments (16)

  1. Veetee:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 12:32 PM

    Will the individual ISPs be allowed to write their own filters, or will they be designed by Claire and the DCMS? e.g. would they be free to add a 'whitelist' that people can add incorrectly-blocked sites too. And notice that Cameron doesn't consider blocking cycling forums overblocking - web forums are one of the options to block! The filter, at max, will only leave out retailers and (as Cameron said) papers like The Sun and the Daily Mail (despite being full of smut too.) It's probably a coincidence that these are the two main Tory voter papers, but I still feel that ought to be mentioned.

  2. Jim Killock:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 02:04 PM

    @Veetee The filters will be designed by the network operators, and the actual lists will be mostly supplied by third party vendors. Hope that helps!

  3. Don:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 03:08 PM

    after receiving some helpful guidance (thanks Jim) I see the following problems and questions raised.
    with it being Nudge censorship, we have no clear legal recourse to overturn it (it is not a law but an agreement) and unless the public is able to have legal recourse on this matter, is it an infringement of the publics human rights?
    with it being an agreement do we have the right to know what other material or on line resources they may be trying to block, using pornography as a cover? we need more transparency not private agreements
    with it being an agreement, what would be the legality of circumventing any restrictions placed under an agreement, as there has been no mention of making content/websites illegal just unsuitable? or is that the next step after people have sleepwalked into accepting the default restrictions as a normal Internet experience?
    TalkTalk's filter who we think the scheme is being based on, is actually produced by Huawei a company with links to the Chinese military, whose equipment was mentioned as an alleged potential threat in a 2009 government briefing by Alex Allan, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee
    I also recall news of all Huawei equipment being removed from US government facilities because of them having an exploitable vulnerability (back door) in the hardware at the microprocessor level.
    I personally contacted talktalk my Internet provider to have their filters turned on, so I could experience first hand what they were like, and because I could not provide an email address for an email account they had set up and not sent me the details of. I was told I could not alter any account settings due to the data protection act (by a non UK based call handler), I would imagine this poor company policy would also prevent me from opting out of any imposed default settings. providing a doubt that this isp is unable to fairly provide or administer any such agreement.

    I do not object to the protection of children, but as a responsible parent of a teenage girl (who I have taught to use the Internet and technology safely and responsibly I hope) I strongly object to being told and then forced to accept someone else's views by means of a private agreement on what is suitable for my daughter. (how else would she be able to get good advice privately on sex education, drugs and other teenage issues) and where would the line be drawn between what is and what is not acceptable? (regardless of age, sex, maturity or other beliefs)

    what is very concerning is the amount of cross bench support for this agreement, all using the "children need protecting" argument
    and even more concerning is the lack of political opposition to this agreement.

    as a footnote, will these defaults be automatically turned off for households without children?

  4. Veetee:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 03:30 PM

    Thanks Jim, but which ISPs are planning on filtering at a network level (in the manner of TalkTalk) and which are planning on offering downloadable filtering software for bill payers to implement their own filters at home? Also, have they stated how they would *force* existing customers to decide, i.e. through 'browser intercepting' as Gove put it (read: illegally hijacking your computer!) or through threatening with cut-off, etc.? Is that possible to even achieve, and how is it allowed under the Human Rights Act?

  5. Richard King:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 03:49 PM

    "I do not believe that the arrangements to protect children from hard core porn online will affect a forum to discuss cycling!"

    Nineteen posts further down that same forum-thread a user points out this actual cycling forum is currently blocked by the filters in use at their place of work:
    The reason given is that the forum is "adult content."

    "I think that men, who think that viewing hard core porn without let or hindrance is some kind of human right, are deliberately exaggerating the effect of the suggested arrangements."

    Flimsy straw-man is flimsy. Not to mention sexist.

  6. Jim Killock:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 03:58 PM

    @Veetee As we understand it, Sky, Virgin and BT are all offering network filtering rather than home software. The question of how to force customers to choose, we don't know but they've agreed to do something within a year.

    @Don The choice faces every household, and filters are enabled unless the users changes the default from yes to no.

  7. Don:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 04:15 PM

    technically you do not need to install additional software for web filtering, there is a safe search option on most search engines, and sites could be blocked on an individual basis by means of the firewall or IP tables, but there is already free easy to use software available (for all platforms and operating systems I believe) but I don't know how freedom friendly they are (saving your Internet history, personal information etc) but software can be set to your personal preferences, which in my opinion is not what they want
    so I think blocking at a network level would be their preferred option as that way every Internet connection would be covered with the default settings or block list (list of sites to block) set to automatically block the sites they want to be blocked (porn or otherwise)
    Hope this helps

  8. Don:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 04:34 PM

    @ Jim
    with this being an agreement and not government policy, who would I contact to try and ask for the source code of any software that would be used so it can be verified that it would only block unsuitable sites, and not for example track or profile the Internet usage of the entire UK. as it is just a porn ban for the sake of the children there should be no objection under national security should there?

  9. ThomasGC:
    Aug 02, 2013 at 08:27 AM

    I've been following ORG's posts on this whole thing and have yet to see much (if any) mention of existing opt-in filters as examples of good practice --- how things could work. My household has used OpenDNS for around four years, with moderate blocking, plus our own (the household's) black- and white-listing. As a TalkTalk customer, I have not taken up there offer (around a year ago, I think) to provide filtering. I also use parental controls (Kaspersky Internet Security) on my son's computer.

  10. Veetee:
    Aug 02, 2013 at 01:12 PM

    @ThomasGC The filtering system is run from a server and even the unfiltered traffic runs through it. The server is run by Huawei, it's been revealed recently. Maybe switch ISP!

  11. Sarah Noble:
    Aug 04, 2013 at 08:14 PM

    I don't think Diane Abbott particularly cares about much stuff these days; she seems very wedded to the party/civil service line, as anyone who's been following the marriage bill can see.

  12. Ed:
    Aug 04, 2013 at 11:35 PM

    @Richard King
    "Flimsy straw-man is flimsy. Not to mention sexist."

    Haven't you heard? Sexism, and bigotry in general, doesn't apply if the target is a privileged male.

  13. Jim Greer:
    Aug 07, 2013 at 08:31 AM

    I find Diane Abott's stance very disappointing. She is clearly very naive about the insidious nature of censorship. The fact is people who want to access adult material arre actually the group who have the least to fear as both the publishers and viewers are highly motivated to get round the restrictions. An analogy would be if the Government banned biscuits and cigarettes tomorrow. Biscuit lovers would meekly comply whereas people would be illegally selling cigarettes on street corners within minutes of the ban. I think she is also wrong to link pornography with men- there is now a,very large market for pornography written and visual for women except there is probably an unwillingness by people to come forward and say that they use it. They have rights too even of they are reluctant to go public.
    I worked in a local Government organisation which used porn filtering and I could not access any sites in adult social care because the filter thought they must be about adult material. It is not going to be Diane Abbot who is operating the filter- it is going to be a computer programme which is incapable of making reasoned judgements. I cannot see why anyone would believe that this could work.

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  15. Sean:
    Aug 08, 2013 at 06:54 PM

    This simply cannot be allowed to happen, once again our government has proven that it will stop at nothing to slowly but surely strip away our rights and freedoms.

    It is particularly despicable that this scheme for mass censorship and surveillance is being peddled under the guise of "protecting children".

    David Cameron should be utterly ashamed of himself - Where are the protests????

  16. Pete:
    Aug 10, 2013 at 06:04 PM

    To my mind this issue is not some plot to strip away civil liberty and spy on the UK's population but more one of a bunch of people not really understanding the matter at hand yet firmly believing they do. They feel a need to defend their standpoint because "obviously" anyone against it must be some kind of deviant. And the *most* important thing is "think of the children". There seems to be a complete obfuscation of the true matter we are so concerned about in as much as it's not really possible to block porn without breaking virtually everything else.

    Why can't they understand that filtering is just stuffing a serious social issue out of site and not actually dealing with it? It's akin to drawing your curtains so you can't see the dealers selling drugs outside your house or looking the other way while someone is mugged. Neither prevents the crime nor will it prevent a future crime, it merely happens to someone else and you don't have to be involved. Foolishness in the extreme.

    The whole thing is further demoralising because in addition to this ignorance and stubbornness there is a total lack of any real means to prevent it happening. I've had a particularly depressing exchange with my MP on this matter who despite being a member of the cross-party group really failed to convince me that he actually understood the argument against the proposals simply saying that they would protect children.

    I've been reading through Claire Perry's report and it strikes me that anyone presenting a coherent counter-argument (Prof. Andy Phippen as an example) is either not listened to, misconstrued or, it seems in parts of that document, treated with a slight tang of disdain.

    It really is a sad state of affairs that these people "representing" us don't really represent us at all and have such trouble disengaging their bias and taking the time to actually digest and comprehend a standpoint counter to their own.