Let us be honest. Communications firms are in the business of making connections, not blocking them. And though some may deny it, many people make all sorts of unexpected connections to many other people. Just consider who has been listening to Angela Merkel’s conversations, or how London newspaper editors joke about hacking each other’s voicemail. It is an irony of human nature that we enjoy the freedom to look and listen, whilst wanting to deny that power to others. British Primeminister David Cameron has pushed British ISPs into implementing opt-out filters to “stop children stumbling across hardcore legal pornography”. So with BT recently joining other British ISPs by implementing their own default filter, what has Britain learned from the litany of filtering mistakes made by other nations? The answer is as short as it was predictable: absolutely nothing.
Let us briefly review some of the websites being blocked by the UK’s new filters. TalkTalk classifies the Edinburgh Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre as ‘pornographic’. BT blocks access to the website for the Doncaster Domestic Abuse Helpline. Sky blocked access to six websites that help people overcome their porn addictions; the ironic implication is that addicts must switch off their porn filters off to continue receiving help online. Award-winning sex education site BishUK.com was blocked by TalkTalk, even though it receives a million visitors annually. TalkTalk also blocked the LGBT section of the Liberal Democrat political party. The ‘strict’ setting on BT’s filter means the blocking of mainstream clothes stores, like Topman.com, presumably because of what lies underneath our clothes. Most bizarrely, T-Mobile blocks the website of Guido Fawkes, a political blogger that is currently ranked as top UK blog overall by Cision, the social media experts. At the same time, the BBC reviewed access to 68 hardcore porn sites and concluded that none of the UK ISP filters blocked all of them. TalkTalk’s filter performed worst, allowing 7 percent of the porn sites to slip through, despite its predilection for overblocking other content.
I have no desire to bash the ISPs for their failure. Their task was hopeless, as well as thankless. Many customers will castigate them. Consider the comments made by Justin Hancock of BishUK to Newsnight:
“It’s really frustrating because I’m trying to provide a sex education site for young people and it’s hard enough directing young people to good quality information on the internet. They might fix my site in the short-term but what about all the other sites that are out there for young people, not just sex education sites… who are TalkTalk to say what is allowed and isn’t?” (my italics)
Whilst politicians and activists may demand filters, it is the middle men who make the connections – in this case TalkTalk – who get the blame when impossible and contradictory demands are not satisfied.
Let me clarify why filtering expectations will never be satisfied. It is not because of the volumes of websites involved, though they are enormous. Only a fool could believe that the review and categorization of millions of new web pages can be performed on a daily basis with 100 percent accuracy. 99 percent might seem good enough to the naïve, but that is little comfort to the 1 percent of businesses, educators, campaigners and commentators who will be wrongly blocked. Some decent enterprises and charities will fail, quietly, because they fell into that 1 percent. 1 percent also sounds like a lot of complaints that ISPs will have to deal with. And 1 percent is not good enough for the 50 percent of kids who will visit the 1 percent of porn sites that are missed by the filters. Not that percentages matter to the other 50 percent of kids, who are smart enough to work around any block. In fact, GoAwayCameron.co.uk already helps them to circumvent the filters, via a free extension to the Google Chrome browser. Which raises another interesting question: should ISPs block that website too?
More importantly, there is no way that a man sat in Canada, or in China, can determine what is appropriate for your child. David Cameron does not have the guts to be specific on the dividing line between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. He will hide behind the skirts of Mumsnet, insisting it is up to parents to make the final decision. And yet, that is plainly the opposite of what will happen in practice, when parents are outsourcing millions of decisions on a daily basis, to the faceless employees of a filtering company, sitting half way across the planet. The scale of the internet demands global solutions to website categorization and control. And yet, most of the people who appeal for such controls are thinking parochial, about what concerns them, or what they think is appropriate for their society.
The inanity of global categorization of websites was brought home to me whilst I worked as Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom. Just like in Britain, there is no shortage of well-meaning Qataris who insist something should be done to protect children from the influence of the internet. Their debate followed the lead of the (much more public) debate in Britain. As a result, they also wanted their ISPs to implement more ‘family-friendly’ filtering.
This was an odd request in some ways – Qatar’s government already imposed a lot more universal, mandatory filtering, compared to the extremely limited universal blacklists implemented in countries like Britain. There is some truth to the old saying: you don’t know what you’re missing. But nothing could discourage some of my Qatari colleagues from their earnest desire to implement content filtering as appropriate for Qatari society. There I was, a Brit, working for Qatar Telecom, telling them that I would not decide what was appropriate on a case-by-case basis. The problem with filtering is that somebody has to make those decisions, for each and every case.
I do not object to making such decisions just because I am British by birth. Qatar Telecom’s outsourced categorizer of websites did a competent job. Their performance was no worse than that now ‘revealed’ by the BBC’s investigation of UK ISPs. And it would have made no difference if a request for enhanced filtering had been directed to a Qatari in the employ of Qatar Telecom. From what little I have learned about this world, by travelling around it, there is one thing I am sure of: I am not fit to decide what words and images should be denied to anyone else, and I doubt anyone else is fit to make that decision for me. If a government wants to decide these things, that is up to them. These will always be no-win decisions for any business. Businesses may rightly aspire to be ethical, but it is rare to find a business case for imposing morality upon the business’ customers. Even when customers want ethical judgements to be imposed upon them, they invariably want it until they do not want it, and they will complain every time an ISP makes the wrong decision on their behalf.
I learned something else about filtering when I was in Qatar. People worry about what is available on the internet, but extrapolating from personal expectations can be unreliable. You need data to understand human behaviour, because different people want different things. That means they look for different things, and the fruits of their imagination can vary greatly. Canadians, Chinese and Qataris might have sufficiently common appetites to adopt a common definition of pornography. However, their tastes and ethical views will vary in other ways. The differences can be hard to anticipate. Even unlimited training in cultural sensitivity would still leave some blind spots, when applied on a global scale. The Qataris regularly challenged me about internet porn, which was already blocked by government decree, but they never asked me about internet gambling, which had not been blocked before I arrived. It did not occur to good Muslim Qataris to demand gambling sites be blocked. It had never occurred to non-Muslim employees, or outsourced providers, to ask if they should be.
Noticing the anomaly, I did some research. Most other Gulf Arab states had passed laws to prohibit internet gambling, in one way or another. However, there was no sign that anyone had even considered proposing such a law in Qatar. Some Qataris had been influenced by the British debate about children accessing pornography, but literally nobody complained about unfettered access to internet gambling. To err on the safe side, I invited numerous lawyers to correct my conclusions. None ever did. So Qatar Telecom continued to provide unrestricted access to internet gambling, for as long as I was there. Based on the number of relevant hits, I could speculate as to the economic impact of maintaining the status quo, though I would only give that opinion in private. But whatever you make think of the morality of gambling, telecoms companies should not obstruct any lawful enterprise.
What I will say publicly is that the real cost of internet filtering comes in the form of a public debate, which might be uncomfortable for the participants. Individuals passionately disagree about restrictions on content, but the scale of the internet forces common filtering decisions upon us. Monitoring all content on the internet is the biggest of big data challenges. Public debate also has a cost, as it requires an informed public to understand the consequences of their decisions for themselves, and for others. When a society is not willing to pay that cost up front, arbitrary decisions will be made, and there will be arbitrary winners and losers. And if the debate is not resolved, an unreasonable cost will be born by the middlemen – the communication providers – who are left unable to satisfy everyone’s expectations. Openness and clarity about the goals of internet filtering are good for telcos, and they are good for everybody.