Inside Default Web Blocking - Part 2

Pro-Ana Content

Last year one of the many nasties due to be blocked was websites which encourage people to develop eating disorders, aka 'Pro-Anorexic' content. The content doesn't appear to be blocked under any of the various filters, suggesting that the ISPs may have realised the problems in this area - namely that an unrealistically proportioned, air-brushed model on a mainstream fashion publication can unfortunately be as self-image damaging as any 'legitimate' weight loss tips.

With the situation as it stands today, in this issue, at least, ISPs seem to have decided that mental health in the UK is an issue more complex than one which can be addressed by attempting to block websites.

Sex Education

BT's (fully optional in this case) filter has already come under heavy criticism for blocking 'gay and lesbian lifestyle' content, before back-peddling to sex education only.

BT's filter whilst claiming 'not [to] discriminate between heterosexual and LGBT content' clearly blocks sites such as gaytimes.co.uk (but not pinknews.co.uk) and does in fact effectively block a range of sex education sites such as the sexual health charity http://www.fpa.org.uk and http://www.contraceptioneducation.co.uk

As this is (for now, at least) a fully opt-in category, the potential for wider damage is fortunately limited.

Web-blocking Circumvention

Whilst web-blocking circumvention has been touted as another block category, it is not (at least on BT) one which can be discretely controlled. Instead it is automatically enabled with the filtering, regardless of which categories are enabled, or indeed if any are at all. This ostensibly means blocking sites for Tor, VPNs, web proxies and so on.

After testing, I found such poor blocking of VPN sites, Tor download sites and web proxies it makes me wonder why this service exists at all.  For example, hidemyass.com is blocked but no other VPN providers are.

Actual VPN services not running over http are not blocked by filtering; like with file sharing blocking, the solution is designed to give the appearance of blocking circumvention tools without actually doing so. It's unclear what the future of this category is in its current poor state.

Esoteric Material

Probably one of the most ill-defined categories, the government pushed for this without ever clarifying its full meaning or scope. This has led to concern from pagans and spiritualists about whether their web content might be subject to blocking.

Much of the government's recommendations on the area has been to emulate the filters set up by Orange in France, where the phrase 'esoteric practices' is used in the context of  cult-like activities under the category 'Sects: Websites on universally acknowledged sects'.

In many European countries (but not the UK) there is specific anti-cult legalisation designed to marginalise groups believed to be harmful by their governments. As there is no definition of a cult under UK law, it appears that the UK has decided to brand the area 'esoteric material' in order to cover cult-like activities.

The phrase "esoteric material" doesn't appear online until after the Open Rights Group consultation on the matter. Searching for "esoteric material" almost exclusively returns reporting on this specific story, implying it's not a term in common usage. What I believe has happened is a government representative has communicated their blocking requirements in the following way:

'We want to block cult websites like they do in Europe, except because we don't have definitions of cults in the UK, we'll call this area "esoteric material" instead'

Labelling organisations as cults and restricting their charitable statuses is complex, as we found out in 2008 when a sixteen year-old was handed a court summons by the City of London police for holding a placard describing the Church of Scientology as a cult. Whatever your stance on cult-like organisations, I think we can agree that loose terminology, broad scope is a dangerous thing.

Extremist and Terrorist Material

When the government announced it wanted to block 'Extremist and Terrorist' material in the midst of the web-blocking announcements, you could be forgiven for thinking this was an additional optional category that might be under the control of the internet bill-payer.

This is not the case; the blocking measures will be mandatory, similar to how the Internet Watch Foundation attempts to block child pornography.

The Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) already exists and provides web urls to block to organisations on the public estate (effectively all government owned organisations including the NHS, schools, prisons, local government etc) and this has been happening since 2011.

Whilst many commentators have seen the latest move to block such content as an unanticipated surprise, what's being requested is simple - for an IWF-like organisation to be formed and to liaise with the ISPs to block the existing CTIRU URL list.

Like with the IWF list, there will be no opting out, no transparency and no appeals process. And, of course, we know they make mistakes. And it won't work on https sites without blocking the entire site.

Conclusions 

Modern day governments are adept are using the private sector to implement their policy.

Central government controlled lists of banned websites would place the responsibility to police the internet and risk liability for failure to do so on a government agency, one which faces potential embarrassment should the list be leaked (such as happened in 2009 when the Australian central block list was leaked online and found to be woefully unfit for purpose).

The ISPs have simply been threatened with central legislation until they have 'voluntarily' implemented the filters discussed. Making enforcement of the filters a consumer matter between individual internet subscribers and ISPs removes liability from the government from commercial damages caused by site overblocking by ISPs. The ISPs in their turn use companies like Webpulse, Webroot and Rulespace with imported and internally managed block lists, diluting responsibility to a point where no one can be held responsibile for  controlling information classification.

Aside from some of the file sharing related court ordered blocks, there is no list of the blocked sites or categories (though the Open Rights Group is trying to make a tool to better index this information).

Unlike the Great Firewall of China, ISPs have been relatively transparent with their filtering efforts, keen to package them all as "parental controls", or as many people still insist on calling them (which I consider a dangerous mislabeling of the actual programme) "porn filters".

Most commentators have ignored the programme to switch these filters on by default. To their credit, ISPs tried resisting calls for filters 'by default' - only BT is to introduce the feature for new customers later in 2013. There remains a level of ambiguity as to whether ISPs will implement filtering by default for existing customers as requested to by Claire Perry.

Belatedly, the Lib Dems called to scrap the opt-out filters whereas Pirate Party UK has opposed the programme ever since its flawed inception.  

Pirate Party UK wants to protect your civil liberties by opposing ineffective, oppressive government programmes which hide under the guise of protecting children from pornography and terrorism.  Join the party and help us in the fight.