I’ve been watching with dismay David Cameron’s statements on the Andrew Marr show at the weekend; he’s attacked Google and other big companies for not blocking illegal pornography. Let’s be clear: Google et al, already do, as far as is possible. The Prime Minister is simply playing politics, and in doing so is exposing his complete lack of understanding about matters technological and social.
It’s not just the coalition government; Edward Miliband trumped him in stupidity by saying that the proposed plans “didn’t go far enough”, which is his usual unthinking response to anything announced by the government that’s might be popular.
Cameron’s latest announcement is to force ISPs to turn on “no porn” filters for all households (optionally removed, so it’s not State censorship). I’d be fascinated to hear him explain how such a filter could possibly work, but as my understanding of quantum mathematics isn’t that good it I may yet be convinced. Don’t hold your breath waiting.
The majority of the population won’t be able to understand why this is technical nonsense, so let’s look at it from the social point-of-view. People using the Internet to distribute child-abuse images do not put them on web sites indexed by Google. If Google finds any, they will remove them from search results and tell the police, as would everyone else. Paedophiles simply don’t operate in the open – why would they? They’re engaged in a criminal activity and don’t want to be caught, and therefore use hidden parts of the Internet to communicate, and not web sites found by Google!
Examining the illegal drugs trade is a useful model. It’s against the law, harmful and regarded as “a bad thing” by the overwhelming majority. The police and border security spend a lot of time and money tackling it, but the demand remains and criminal gangs are happy to supply that demand. So how successful has 100 years of prohibition been? Totally ineffective, by any metric. With 80% of the prison population on drugs IN PRISON it should be obvious that criminals will continue to supply drugs under any circumstances, if there’s a demand. If anything, proscribing drugs has made it more difficult to deal with the collateral effects by making the trade and users much more difficult to track.
So, if we can’t stop drugs (a physical item) getting in to prisons (presumably amongst most secure buildings in the country) , does anyone seriously think it’s possible to beat the criminals and prevent illegal porn being transmitted electronically to millions of homes across the country? David Cameron’s advisors don’t appear to have been able get him to understand this point.
Another interesting question is whether I should opt to have the porn filter removed from my connection. The only way such a filter could possibly be effective is if it banned everything on its creation, and then only allowed what was proven safe through. There are generally considered to be over 500 million web sites out there, with 20,000 being added every month. That’s sites; not individual pages. The subset that can realistically be examined and monitored to make sure they are safe is going to be quite small, and as a security researcher, I need to retrieve everything. So am I going to have to ‘phone my ISP and say “yes please, want to look at porn”? Actually, that won’t be a problem for me because I am my own ISP. The government doesn’t even know I exist; there is no register of ISPs (or even a definition of the term). There are probably tens of thousands in the country. So I shall await a call from Mr Cameron’s office with a full technical explanation of this filtering scheme with interest.
Fortunately for the Prime Minister, his live speech on the subject scheduled for 11am has been displaced by a load of royal reporters standing outside a hospital and Buckingham Palace saying “no news yet” on the supposed imminent arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child.