Internet Service Providers should not filter the Internet

Martin Brinkmann
Dec 22, 2015

I'm following the UK's fight against porn on the Internet with fascination as it highlights how ideologists use something that everyone can agree on (protect children) to censor the Internet.

If you are not living in the UK you may not have heard about it, or only read about the initiative in passing.

A filtering program is applied to customers of major Internet Service Providers in the UK since the end of 2013 either automatically or on customer request.

The four major ISPs in the UK have agreed -- voluntarily -- to implement the Internet filter and while the how is left to each ISP, all have enabled these filters to a degree.

Sky announced recently for instance that it will turn on Sky Broadband Shield for all new customers in 2016 instead of asking them whether they want the filter enabled.

According to Sky, it gives customers "control of their household internet experience by allowing them to filter what sites can be accessed".

The ISP fails to mention that options to do so exist today already, either by being responsible, by using parental control software, or by using other filtering software that is installed on local computer systems or the router.

Something is rotten in the state of England

Third-party web filtering by OpenDNS

While it is certainly important that children access only age-appropriate content on the Internet, it needs to be discussed who should be responsible for ensuring that.

The Internet filter, or Great Firewall of Britain, is not effective in protecting children. While it blocks a good chunk of adult websites, it is overreaching in nature which means that legitimate sites are blocked by it as well.

What makes this even more problematic is that the public cannot access the filtering list which opens the door for all kinds of shenanigans. According to Wikipedia, what is called as "overblocking" is already happening in the UK as sex education, drug advice, parliament, government and politicians sites have been found to be blocked by the filter.

There is also no way for webmasters or Internet users outside the UK to find out whether sites are blocked by the filter.

The Open Rights Group scanned the 100,000 most popular domains in 2014 and found 19% of them being blocked by the filter while sites hosting pornographic material are thought to be around 4% only.

While overblocking is a big issue, underblocking is too. Underblocking refers to sites that are not blocked even though they should be if the filtering criteria are applied.

The filter does not provide a 100% way of blocking children from adult content on the Internet. If you add to that the fact that it can be bypassed easily, for instance by using a VPN or proxy, then you can only come to the conclusion that it does not work for the intended purpose.

Last but not least, it makes no sense to activate the filter for households without children.

Now You: What's your take on the Internet filter in the UK?

Internet Service Providers should not filter the Internet
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  1. 876fb9a1 said on January 19, 2016 at 1:14 am

    I agree with all of the criticism of this scheme that appears in the article, but it did miss out one point: the filter is not mandatory.

    ISPs will remove the filters at the customer’s request – either at the point of sign-up or at any other time.

    Of course, if the customer is unaware of the filters, that doesn’t help them, if they would be inclined to have them removed. I am not sure how the big ISPs who have implemented these filters deal with it in terms of informing customers.

    It also doesn’t help those in a household who want unfiltered internet but are not the paying customer.

    I am in the UK and I use a smaller ISP which does not filter. In fact they make a point of it – and are currently actively opposing the so-called “snoopers’ charter” legislation that’s been proposed.

    So while the government is bad, and the big corporate ISPs are bad, unfiltered** internet is still available from all ISPs, and some ISPs are actually good.

    ** unfiltered probably doesn’t mean that the IWF’s blocklist (for child pornography etc) isn’t implemented. It’s not something I’ve ever been tempted to test.

  2. Jim said on December 25, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    There is nothing age inappropriate about children seeing porn when they are ready.

    That is the mental block people need to get over. When your brain is rewired by biology you will seek out and find stimuli to assist in pleasuring yourself!

  3. jern said on December 23, 2015 at 4:41 am

    If kids want porn they create it for themselves. They don’t need the internet, they’ve got cell phones.

    ‘Sexting’ survey shows pressure faced by teens

    Police Bust Virginia Sexting Ring Involving More Than 100 Teens

    Charges to Be Filed in Teen Sexting Ring
    Thirty students from six San Diego-area high schools and one middle school were involved

    Police: 22 teens involved in Vt. sexting ring

    etc., etc., etc.

    1. Corky said on December 23, 2015 at 12:32 pm

      Sexting is technically illegal under the age of 18 in the UK and could land you with a criminal record and on the sex offenders register.

      1. Walt G said on April 29, 2016 at 2:50 pm

        Well according to the data at teen pregnancy rate dropped almost three times and this is simply because of sex education and contraceptives. Besides, according to the number of teenagers having sex is the lowest in the last 25 years. Still, according to approx. 40% of high school students are sexually active and this is quite a number. Although I doubt internet censorship will reduce this number. It will probably even benefit porn business since there will always be demand and such business may remain intact but just earn more.

      2. jern said on December 26, 2015 at 1:49 am

        A Telegraph article from 2011 shows that the problem isn’t just parents, it’s also an sex education system that is too timid to actually teach what children are ready to learn. The children are smart enough to simply look elsewhere for the knowledge.

        “Pornography is replacing sex education”
        A rising number of children are learning about sex from watching pornography because sex education lessons are inadequate, researchers have found.

        I’d be the last person on Earth to suggest that porn is the best or even a good way to get a sex education, but when everything else is deficient it is better than nothing.

      3. Corky said on December 24, 2015 at 10:20 am

        It would seem to me from looking at the chart that the fall is directly related to education, or rather the lack of it, the Internet has gone a long way to educating people that society overlooked, it’s no coincidence that the lowest birth rates were and are in the white ethnic group, what’s the saying ‘well educated white guy’

        Where in the past parents have been squeamish to discus things like sex with their children and they had to discover what it was about for themselves they now have the Internet to answer those awkward questions that some parents refuse to talk about.

      4. jern said on December 24, 2015 at 7:27 am

        Data on teen pregnancies was published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

        “Between 1990 and 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), the teen pregnancy rate declined by 51 percent—from 116.9 to 57.4 pregnancies per 1,000 teen girls.”

        A chart in the report includes the years 2011-2013 and shows the decline continues.

        Tim Berners-Lee started constructing the first web browser in 1990. Non sequitur? Maybe.

      5. Corky said on December 23, 2015 at 5:26 pm

        Yes passing laws doesn’t keep people from breaking them, the only thing that does that is education, educating people about the reason for sexting being illegal for instance (it’s classed a distributing child porn).

        While I’ve not done any research on the subject you raised about teen pregnancy rates falling in the United States I wouldn’t be surprised if what you described isn’t related directly to the internet and online porn, but that those two things have helped educate people.

        It’s the same with the UK’s content filters, ultimately the only way to protect your children from the less savory corners of the Internet is to educate them on those dangers and how best to avoid them, i could go on for hours but it’s similar to teaching children to cross the road, we don’t ban cars because their dangerous, we teach our children when their old enough the skills they need to stay safe.

      6. jern said on December 23, 2015 at 2:40 pm

        The problem is that passing laws does not keep people from breaking them.

        I posted that because I don’t think censoring porn protects young adults and it may actually cause more problems than it solves. In the United States, over the last 20 years there has been a marked decline in teen pregnancy. That period coincides with the growth of the internet and online porn.

        There are many hard questions and few or no easy answers.

  4. Wayfarer said on December 23, 2015 at 4:24 am

    The aim isn’t child protection – it’s power and control of information – a wet dream of many UK politicians for quite a while.

    Politicians and bureaucrats think these moves will give them control of what we see, hear and enquire into. Given that few of them can distinguish technology from magic, they’re delusionary. It’s clear that few understand even the basics of how the technology works, let alone the implications of proxy, vpn or alternate dns services.

    For plans like this to succeed politicians and bureaucrats will have no choice but to depend upon techical advice – and it is the power of those advisors we should worry about as much as that of politicians. The power will lie with those who understand and control the technology, with politicians having to accept at face value advice they are incapable of evaluating. They may ultimately find themselves even more subject to control than the rest of us.

  5. coakl said on December 23, 2015 at 12:21 am

    I’m going to be a selfish American: If this reduces U.K. traffic to my favorite sites, and makes my surfing a little faster and easier, I won’t complain.

  6. Andrew said on December 22, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    HTTP Error 451: Unavailable For Legal Reasons…

  7. Mike J. said on December 22, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    ”… parliament, government and politicians sites have been found to be blocked by the filter.” At least, some good has come out of this.

    1. dan said on December 22, 2015 at 3:01 pm

      Lol. Thanks, Mike… I needed that laugh this morning!

  8. kalmly said on December 22, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Big government and Microsoft, they have so much in common. They know what is best for us before we know it ourselves. And because we can’t be trusted to make decisions on our own, they make them for us and force them down our throats. Makes me feel warm and safe.

  9. Brock said on December 22, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    It’s ok to filter something from children. Maybe not so good methods used there so. You should better check what Latvia does. They have law to make ISPs filter every gambling/casino etc site if they haven’t registered permit to operate in Latvia. They already considering to do same thing with internet TV.

    1. Andrew said on December 22, 2015 at 6:11 pm

      It’s not okay to filter something from children unless it is something that the parents put in place.

    2. pcninja said on December 22, 2015 at 4:29 pm

      I disagree, children should not be barred from learning actually useful things that they should know in life.

  10. swamper said on December 22, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    It’s called “Enabling”. Parents no longer raise their kids they depend on others to do it for them. Or it just doesn’t get done. The “filter” needs to be applied to the grandparents. Put simply if a grand child messes up and is not corrected by the parent who’s fault is it? The grandparents. They didn’t do their job to start with. Family is never ending as long as it is treated that way.

    I frequently make reference to baseball bats over one of my sons that is perpetually engrossed in a smart phone to the point that his 2 yr. old child runs amok as she sees fit. Saving grace is my other son does not have the same affliction as his brother so I know the lessons were learned on some level. They both had the same raising. Even though they are grown I am still doing my job when they don’t do theirs and always will.

    Governments must protect you from yourself. They are smarter than you are….

    Or at least until you vote the people running the gvt. out of office just to prove your not as dumb as they thought.

    Sadly, I suspect there are such severe political problems in England that it will take nothing less than a revolt to correct it. Oh I forgot, they took your guns already, nvm…. My bunch revolted a couple hundred years ago. Not that we may not have another one here before long either if things keep going like they are on this side of the big pond. Oops, my very deep insurrectionist roots are showing. I may already be on the “list” every alphabet agency we have uses, so be it.

    1. Offthepink said on December 23, 2015 at 12:53 am

      Either that or muslims were complaining again. The uk bends over backwards for them to a ridiculous degree.

  11. Ben said on December 22, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    > Something is rotten in the state of England
    Well sure, it’s a police state without civil rights for “citizens”.
    But I am sure the EU will solve this problem by doing the same to us.

  12. Earl said on December 22, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    The last thing that the typical parent wants is for their children to learn anything useful about life before they’re grown and out of the house. Filters aren’t about protecting children; they’re about protecting parents–from having to be responsible. As a result, you wind up with grown children who are just as maladjusted as their parents were and just as unprepared to live a healthy life.

    Yeah, “grown-ups” are stupid.

    1. pcninja said on December 22, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      I agree. also, censorship period is intolerable.

  13. wybo said on December 22, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    To me it seems kinda of a trend were censoring is becoming more and more commonplace. China is the biggest culprit with their ‘Big FireWall’. But European democracies with neo liberal parties in charge do not fare well either. Look at the UK and Poland now. I will not even talk about Hungary.

  14. Tom Hawack said on December 22, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Remains the possibility to change the DNS servers (manually or with applications such as DNSJumper) or am I missing something? Would it be that this very work-around is made impossible by ISPs in the UK? If my wondering is obsolete, forgive me!

    Whether or not a user can choose his DNS servers in the UK remains the fact that not all users are aware of this and of course the ideology sustained by a policy. Moreover because it appears as ineffective. Education is the basis of course and I consider as truly deceptive an era where many parents rely on school and on Internet censorship to educate and protect their children. Many parents but not all of course. Most parents who do decide to educate their kids (educate, not raise) are often pointed as “reactionary” which may as well as not be the case. It is more complex than it might seem to be, IMO. Nevertheless, as always, nothing can be achieved without the dialog, especially within families.

    1. Corky said on December 22, 2015 at 1:01 pm

      You’re not missing anything.
      The UK filters are so easy to circumvent that a 5 year old kid could do it, in fact just hours after they were introduced some enterprising people released browser addons that automatically bypassed the filters via proxies.

  15. Dwight Stegall said on December 22, 2015 at 11:26 am

    Web filters have been around since the web started. None have ever been worth having. Everyone blocks good sites and allows bad sites to get through. The only good filter is a watchful parent.

    AT&T DSL used to filter web content. I got sick of it and switched to Google Public DNS. But I don’t know if that would help in this case. I know very little about this.

    ISPs sometimes forget who they work for. It’s up to us to remind them that without us they would have nothing.

    1. Corky said on December 22, 2015 at 12:57 pm

      To be fair to the ISPs Dwight they did attempt to say no and fight it but in the end our government told them either do it voluntarily or they would pass a law forcing it on them, the ISPs grudgingly agreed as trying to remain within any law would’ve been more problematic.

      1. Corky said on December 22, 2015 at 7:21 pm

        Sometimes you have to be wise enough to know when to carry on fighting JohnMWhite, if carrying on fighting means the outcome would be worse you have to ask if you’re just better off just accepting the less of two evils.

      2. JohnMWhite said on December 22, 2015 at 6:51 pm

        So they caved to threats. That’s not exactly what fighting means.

  16. John said on December 22, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Any such filter is without any user side control… meh.

    It should indeed be a responsibility of the parents to secure the kids internet access. There are plenty of options, like netnanny etc.

    1. Ricky Sambora said on December 22, 2015 at 2:35 pm

      Yes, and moreover, we really don’t need the Tories (or whatever other government for what matters) to take care of it on our behalf, thanks.

  17. Corky said on December 22, 2015 at 10:17 am

    I could write a dissertation on everything that’s wrong with the UK’s content filters (live there), that it causes real harm, that it encourages parents to abdicate their parenting responsibilities, how it’s increased broadband prices, how it’s infective, and how it was a cheap political stunt.

    Having said that i would be interested to know why the interest in the content filtering in the UK, is Germany thinking of doing something similar (Martin does hail from Germany right?), if Germany, or for that matter any other country proposes similar measures i would strongly encourage you to fight it, sadly we lost the battle in the UK.

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