Tech Law

Information on STDs, pregnancy and sexuality becoming blocked under porn filter policies - it must stop

By Mark Leiser |

December 22, 2013 | 6 min read

It is no secret that I am not a fan of porn filtering. I have written about these draconian measures here and here. My opposition to porn filtering comes largely down to three separate reasons: firstly, I am not convinced of any real harm from viewing adult pornography and that limiting access to porn is typical of the cyber-Victorian times in which we live.

Guidelines: BT's policy represents worrying trend, says Mark Leiser

Secondly, the government can’t seem to tell the difference between child abuse images, and images accessible by children, which are two entirely different issues altogether. And finally, filtering implementation is a violation of my privacy and the content creator’s freedom of expression. Imagine the shame in having to phone up Virgin and say: “Can I have the filtering turned off please? I want to watch porn.”

Now imagine the shame from having to call up your landlord that provides WiFi as part of their rental and having to ask them: “Can you please phone up the broadband provider and ask them to turn the filtering off please?” Oh, the embarrassment!

We have an expression among cyber-lawyers that filtering is a restriction on free speech that ‘either blocks too much or blocks too little’. Now we are seeing first-hand how inept David Cameron’s mandate to internet service providers really is, despite advisor to the Prime Minister of all filtering matters Claire Perry calling the concerns “a load of cock”.

No, I didn’t make that up. I don’t have the answers on whether Claire Perry’s comments would have been filtered by my ISP.

While the government seeks to satisfy the Daily Mail’s calls to limit access to pornography, it has had the knock-on effect of limiting not only legitimate pornographers freedom of expression rights (yes, freedom of expression applies to them too) but also access to scores of sexual health and advice sites.

Now the popular blogging site WordPress has seen users complaining on forums about not being able to access their accounts.

The incident, largely because child abuse images on a WordPress account were blocked by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), is reminiscent of the time the IWF, the self-regulatory body funded by ISPs and the EU tasked with policing and blocking access to child abuse images online, partly blocked access to Wikipedia because of an official deeming the rock group Scorpions cover for the album Virgin Killer to be child porn.

When a person reports child abuse images to the IWF, they take steps to add the URL to a blocked list of web addresses and send to ISPs. If a user tries to access the file, your ISP will not allow a connection and the web page will appear ‘not found’ or a ‘404 error’ will be returned to your computer, leaving the user none the wiser.

As TalkTalk confirmed last week: "Due to the application of our blocking of the IWF list of URLs that contain child abuse imagery, a small number of users may have experienced intermittent issues accessing WordPress at the end of last week. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused."

So why does this matter? Accessing any site is important for a number of reasons, but what isn’t in doubt is that between 26 November 26 and 5 December, one of the largest websites in the world was inaccessible over https to TalkTalk users because of a filtering system in place by a private organisation that has little to no oversight.

The IWF has no system of oversight in place to verify that the images reported are indeed child abuse images, nor does there appear to be any accountability to the website that is adversely affected by implementation of the filtering service.

In this case, TalkTalk blamed an illegal image hosted on the server, resulting in the entire hosting server being blocked. (The IWF deny this).

The incident only affected TalkTalk customers, which leads me to believe that the problem was down to the way the ISP was implementing its filters and not the IWF’s blocking itself.

This highlights another problem: who is overseeing how TalkTalk and other ISPs are determining what is blocked and filtered?

The Picture above, detailing BT’s policy, should scare you. Yes, BT is giving account holders the choice to filter sites that offer advice about gay and lesbian lifestyles, abortion, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

It should be painfully obvious now that filtering is a block on sexual freedom and free expression about sexual choice. Well done, Claire Perry and David Cameron. I wonder who is going to come along from your government and guide young and confused adults seeking information from the internet about unwanted pregnancies, rape, and an unexplained rash or spot.

Well done indeed.

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