[UPDATED] UK ISPs are filtering what you see online

UK

ISPs

regularly filter the online content that we access.

I don't know if I have been living in a bubble of naivety for my online life, but when I learned this was happening on a continuous basis I was shocked.

Cleanfeed

, setup by

BT

in 2003, is an

ISP

-level filtering system that operates on the 'edge' of web traffic and had to be added to all UK

ISPs

by the end of 2007 in a compulsory move. It provides a way for chosen content to be blocked from the UK 'public'.

The motivations for

Cleanfeed

are good - to provide a way for

ISPs

to block access to child abuse content - but it's the existence of such a system itself that makes me nervous.

We do not live in a country that is going to face a situation like the '

Great Firewall of China

' where mass content is filtered for political control and gain on a regular basis, but with all measures of control a line has to be drawn and the questions are

who gets to draw that line

and

where will that line be

?

In the case of

Cleanfeed

, it blocks URLs as determined by the

Internet Watch Foundation (

IWF

)

, a charitable organisation by registration, but one that also receives the majority of its funds from the

ISPs

themselves. An exercise in industry self-regulation, but a dangerous setup?

The

IWF

reviews online content based on reports from the public, the police and IT professionals and submissions can be anonymous; it is acting as the

hotline

for the UK of 'suspicious' online content.

All of this is reasonable, and as a father I am glad to hear that extreme content (particularly of child abuse) has the potential to be filtered away. But in reality, how effective can a body like this be? The

IWF

says it can add 60-70 new URLs every week, not a bad number given its staff of 7, but surely wholly ineffective - it's been a while since I coded but I could build more than that in the same time frame.

A body like the

IWF

must surely exist to give the

Daily Mai

l readers of this world a way to sleep at night. But if that's the decision then let's do it properly and give it enough capability to be more effective. File-sharing programs and

Ian Clarke's

Freenet

provide easy ways to bypass the filtering for instance.

Personally I am more concerned about what this might mean for the future and how much restriction will be placed on us a populace - the reality will be somewhere in between our setup today and China. Control systems only get tighter. As an example,

Cleanfeed

will move beyond its child pornography remit by 2010 and start filtering out 'extreme pornography'.

---

What started this thought was an article today about

Cleanfeed

being 'activated' to block a

Wikipedia

article about

Virgin Killer

, an album by a German group called the Scorpions. Their album cover contains a naked underage girl and was deemed as child pornography, and therefore blocked.

(The album cover shown here is the alternative, cleaner version issued in several countries).

If you are on a UK

ISP

right now, chances are you won't be able to view the page at all. Due to the way

Cleanfeed

works (by filtering the traffic from the page through a proxy and removing the illicit content)

Wikipedia

had to block large proportions of UK traffic from the article completely as it was hurting site performance.

Interestingly, our Internet connection at work seems unfiltered.

---

One final thought - spare a moment for the individuals who work in all aspects of law enforcement and regulation that have to spend their time reviewing child pornography and image of abuse. Horrendous job, but without them we would not have any regulation in this area and would not be able to prosecute those involved in its production.

---

[UPDATE]

As an example of the difficulties in drawing the line, I recommend an article on

The Register

which highlights the problems of where to draw the line and who is doing the drawing:

Reg readers in the dark over extreme porn - Local police clueless too

Everything you always wanted to know about Google

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