Friday, 26 July 2013

British government web filtering overstepping the line

As you may be aware, over recent years the current government has been intervening more and more in matters concerning access to the world wide web. Currently as it stands the government has implemented web filtering technologies to filter out and block access to file sharing web sites and specific web sites dedicated to abuse of children.

The official government reasoning for the latest batch of web filtering technology is that a 'pornography' filter will prevent children seeing inappropriate material online. This is unnecessary as children aren't supposed to use the world wide web without supervision. Much like how children are not allowed to be left unsupervised in a home without an adult present, or how it is unacceptable to allow children to wander off when out doors without knowing where they're going. It is not the governments responsibility to raise a child or protect a child from reality. This is a parenting issue – not a governmental one and as such government intervention is unneeded, unwarranted and has much wider negative ramifications than may be immediately obvious. Web filtering is a slippery slope and one that can easily be abused. It's much safer to initiate a campaign of awareness and education on the dangers of internet usage among children than it is to blanket filter the web at whole.

I back the move to curb rampant copyright infringement and abusive materials found online, but the technology behind this is ripe for abuse and needs more time for peer review within the technology sector. As you may be aware, the current blocking technology used in the U.K is primarily to target file sharing web sites and web sites that have been through due process in courts of law. A new government initiative to block 'inappropriate' web sites however is in the pipe line to be rushed through and deployed before the end of the year. This is an incredibly dangerous route to take and is ripe for abuse. Whether the government intends to abuse it or not is irrelevant as by instigating these measures the vector for abuse is introduced.

You may be aware of the United States 'PRISM' project operated by the NSA (National Security Agency) and the U.K equivalent 'Tempora', which is operated by GCHQ (Government Communications Head Quarters). These operations are designed to gather data indiscriminately on all internet communications that pass through these systems, and as these systems are attached directly to the internet backbone via the transatlantic fibre optic cables and cables connected to mainland Europe, this is the vast majority of web traffic that enters and exits the United Kingdom. 

The Tempora data gathering operation is not designed to monitor a specific individual after going through appropriate channels and due process, it is completely indiscriminate. This system coupled with the proposed blocking technology could be abused in an extreme fashion. This needs to be highlighted and discussed within government and within relevant groups within academia, professional peer groups such as the British Computing Society and relevant rights groups and campaigners such as the NSPCC and Electronic Frontier Foundation. This technology is too dangerous to be rushed into action.

The proposed measures to block access to swathes of the internet, based entirely on an opt-out system will allow organisations such as GCHQ and the NSA to single out and eaves drop, without warrant on individuals whom select predetermined options during the opt out phase. The internet service provider 'TalkTalk' plans to have an opt-out system that automatically applies filters to the following classes of web site:

  •     Dating.
  •     Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco.
  •     File Sharing web sites.
  •     Gambling.
  •     Pornography.
  •     Social Networking.
  •     Suicide and Self-Harm.
  •     Weapons and Violence.

This will cause internet service providers to share this data willingly or unwillingly with the government on the choices users have selected. This is not a good thing. Current government has demonstrated a disregard of due process by implementing systems such as Tempora to monitor web based communications on a massive scale. I hate to make the comparison, but this is much like what the Nazi Gestapo did during World War 2, even down to profiling individuals. This is absolutely unacceptable in a country such as the United Kingdom.

I am outraged that the government is trying to force these measures on the public without first consulting the public, or the companies that must shoulder the burden. We (the public) are being told this is going to happen and that we have no say. I wish to see this addressed as government and politicians are employed by us the people as being the representatives of us, and our views on such. As it is currently described, these measures are to help prevent children viewing inappropriate content and to stop abuse of children from occurring on the internet. I find this notion absurd. Whilst it is true there are some sick and twisted individuals out there that will take advantage of children. Sexual abuse of children is not to such a degree that internet access needs to be restricted and restrictive web filtering technology installed. The Chinese government currently does this sort of filtering using the colloquially termed Great Firewall of China, and this attracts E.U/U.S criticism frequently and yet here we are doing the same. The fact that this project is being overseen by Chinese firm Huawei is starting to raise eye brows to say the least considering the revelations of Huawei's owner.

The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) states that “over 90% of children who have experienced sexual abuse, were abused by someone they knew.”

During 2011/2012 the NSPCC cites that there were 17,186 children abused. As we can infer from the statistics this means that 15,467 of those children were abused by people they already knew. It is quite reasonable to make the connection that this group was not abused by people who groomed them online, as they already knew the abuser. This means that during 2011/2012 there were 1718 children abused by people they did not know.

We cannot infer the exact number of children groomed online from the statistic of 1718 children that were abused by people they did not know, but if we are conservative and take the full 1718 as the total number of children groomed online. This means that after we include all children from birth until the age of consent for sexual intercourse (16), the population of children was as of 2011 for England and Wales, 9,151,300 children. This means that 0.019% of children in England and Wales are abused due to being groomed online. 

Applying massive restrictions on the way the world wide web functions within the United Kingdom which could have far reaching ramifications on civil liberties and the underlying technology that ensures the correct functioning of the world wide web is unacceptable, this needs to be represented in parliament and discussed at length, this cannot and should not be allowed to be pushed through due to political posturing. 

Rather than blanket web filtering, I propose that parents who allow their children to use the web unsupervised, fail to educate their children on the dangers of the world wide web and demonstrate a clear lack of responsibility or engagement with their children be punished for neglecting their children. Sacrificing our rights and civil liberties in the name of security is NOT acceptable.

I would like to know your opinion on what is currently happening with regards to this, and I want to know what you're going to do about it.


This is a letter I wrote to my local M.P (Member of Parliament) with regards to these subjects:

I recommend signing this petition:

Since I originally wrote this article / letter I have received a response from Jon Ashworth, Member of Parliament for Leicester South. This is it as I received it.

Thank you for your emails regarding online safety for children and please accept my sincere apologies for my delayed response.

This is a very controversial and hotly debated issue. The Labour Party, on balance, takes the view that that Government’s policy decisions in this area are the right ones. However, I am very grateful for your comments.

The Labour Party shares the serious concerns that many people hold about the proliferation of adult online content and the danger this poses to children. Indeed, 80% of people (and 93% of women) think that online child safety is a problem and nearly three-quarters of 9-16 year olds in the UK go online each day. See article by Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, The Daily Mail, 15/12/12 and Daily Mail, 26/04/12 There are three issues that the Labour Party feels need to be addressed.

1.      Illegal child abuse images – images of child abuse are illegal in every country in the world. No one is supporting the idea that they should be legal or accessible. The argument here centres around how best to stop people accessing them. Labour supports the introduction of ‘splash pages’ that pop up when people seek out a page that has been identified as containing illegal images by the authorities and has been removed. This page clearly tells people that what they were looking for is illegal. Academic evidence suggests that 50% of those seeking out child abuse images could have been put off by the slightest barrier to their efforts (in this case, splash pages).
  1. Filtering adult content – the Labour Party does not want to see censorship of the internet but does think it should be easier for parents to protect their children online and to minimise the risk of children being exposed to adult material. The internet would not be subjected to censorship by filters, but would be brought in line with ideas that have long been accepted in the ‘real’ world. It is not legal for children to buy an 18-rated DVD, to see an 18 film in the cinema, or to enter a sex shop. By stopping children easily accessing free pornography with a few clicks of the mouse online, the same standards are being applied to ensure their safety. As with other legal adult material, it will still be available to over-18s who want access to it. There is a growing body of evidence from the NSPCC, Children’s Commissioner and Director of Public Prosecutions that pornography is affecting young people’s behaviour in sex and relationships negatively.

    The Labour Party believes that internet providers should be far more proactive in preventing access to harmful online material by making filters ‘default on’ unless an adult opts-out and by seeking robust means of age verification for age restricted material.
  2. Extreme pornography – a loophole exists in the law that means it is not illegal to possess graphic images/pornography that depict simulated rape. It is illegal to possess these images in other forms of media such as films and stills. It is illegal to possess this pornography in Scotland. The Labour Party wants to close this loophole and bring England and Wales in line with the Scottish law. 
I hope this information is helpful to you regarding the Labour Party’s overall stance on the issue.

Thank you once again for taking the time to write to me providing your own thoughts on the matter, which are very useful for the debate.

Yours sincerely,