Who regulates the filtering?

The subject of filtering internet connections by default ‘for the children’ has repeatedly come up over recent months. Like many people I was concerned at the possibility for censorship and abuse. Together with many others I emailed my MP to ask about the filtering (using the extremely convenient writetothem.com website), and my MP was kind enough to forward me a copy of the response that he had received from the DCMS. A copy of that response can be found here.

It would appear that the response consists of… nothing. When you strip out all the meaningless double speak there is nothing left. They acknowledge that respecting rights is a problem yet give no details whatsoever on how those rights will be respected.

This sort of attitude isn’t just a problem for the person sat at their PC trying to access online services. When people think of using the internet they tend to only think of the end user. The end user, however, is only part of the equation. They would have nothing to use if it wasn’t for the people that actually own and run the websites. Those website owners have as much a right to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association as anybody else. These are rights guaranteed in the ECHR (see articles 8, 10 and 11) and yet the blunt approach that filtering represents appears to completely ignore these rights. I am not a lawyer, but I’d nevertheless also be curious to know how the lack of any formal appeals procedure to stop incorrectly applied censorship could possibly ever comply with article 13 of the convention.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that even with the best of intentions errors will creep in. We already have the clumsy use of existing laws to block access to such dens of depravity as the Radio Times, not to mention political blogs being blocked by the filtering implemented by mobile companies. The problem of incorrectly applied filtering is already so prevalent that entire organisations exist with the sole aim of dealing with this issue.

It’s already clear that without some form of rigorous oversight that not only will mistakes will be made, but that many of them will be entirely avoidable. People will be filtered out of existence completely unnecessarily when it comes to the British corner of the internet, and even more worryingly will have limited options when it comes to clearing up the mess that should never have happened in the first place.

Take TalkTalk’s approach for example: their ‘notice for website owners‘ consists of the following:

If you have a website and believe it is being blocked incorrectly by HomeSafe™ then please email homesafe.classification@talktalkplc.com, stating as a minimum your responsibility for the website (e.g. you may be the administrator, the site owner, or owner of the business advertised), the full name of the domain or url being blocked, and the category you believe it is being blocked under (e.g. Dating). This feedback will be reviewed by TalkTalk and changes may be made to HomeSafe™ as a result. However, TalkTalk will not reply to these requests nor enter into correspondence.

In other words: we won’t tell you when we filter your site. We won’t talk to you about what has happened or why. You don’t really have any rights to demand anything and tough luck if we decide you stay on the list …Oh, and by the way we want you to comply with these impossible demands too.

After all, if a site has been incorrectly filtered, how on earth are the webmasters supposed to state – ‘as a minimum’ – the category that they believe it has been applied to their website?

I was curious about who was actually responsible for regulating these systems. Cameron’s speech back in July appeared to suggest that OFCOM would be responsible for overseeing this scheme. I duly emailed OFCOM with the following questions:

  1. What right will website owners have to be notified that their website has been filtered?
  2. What sort of right to reply can website operators expect prior to filtering?
  3. What sort of right to compensation can website owners expect when their site has been incorrectly filtered?
  4. What minimum standards will be enforced to ensure that website owners can get their site unfiltered?
  5. In regards to such minimum standards, how long would be the maximum time that an ISP would be expected to deal with any complaint?
  6. What sanctions will ISPs face for incorrectly filtering a site?
  7. Finally what appeals process will exist if an ISP refuses to remove a page?

This was the reply received:

Ofcom has no general role in overseeing the use of network level filters by ISPs. We are in discussions with the Government with a view to undertaking research into the awareness that parents have of the broad range of measures that are available for the purpose of improving the safety of their children when online.  This would include non-technical as well as technical approaches.  We would also be looking at the confidence that parents have in using such measures.  We are discussing with the Government how we might report on the progress being made by the four main ISPs against the voluntary commitments they gave to the Government, which were widely reported in the media.

The specific questions you ask in your email relate to the operation of the filtering systems by the ISPs and as such are best addressed by those ISPs that are deploying them.

So who is responsible for overseeing the use of network filters? Are ISPs really going to be left to do as they see fit with nobody there to make sure they don’t at least try to avoid mistakes?

One other thing with this reply that ought to be noteworthy is the complete lack of any mention of webmasters and how their rights will be considered in all of this, which is odd considering how many livelihoods depend on web based businesses these days, not to mention the large chunk of people’s lives that are conducted online. The last sentence in the reply is also the cause of concern, since it implies that ISPs will be left to regulate themselves. We know from the disaster caused by the banking industry that self-regulation can often end up being a complete train wreck.

In any case the reply seemed to be at odds with the speech, since the speech included this:

That’s why I am asking today for the small companies in the market to adopt this approach too and why I’m asking OFCOM, the industry regulator, to oversee this work, judge how well the ISPs are doing and report back regularly.

I thought maybe that perhaps somebody somewhere had made a mistake, so I asked them again. I got a very similar reply.

So it seems that there will be no meaningful oversight of the filtering. This is the same filtering that was only every proposed because of bullying by the government and their threat of legislation. The government apparently won’t be introducing any checks or balances to make sure that these systems are run responsibly, even though the government is directly responsible for the existence of the filtering through their own actions.

I don’t accept that filtering is a good way to deal with keeping children safe. If we believe something is unsafe or inappropriate for a child to have then we should stop them from having it. We shouldn’t break the system in an attempt to accommodate the children. Parental responsibility rarely seems to get a mention. It should be up to them to decide what their children should and should not be using. They shouldn’t be leaving the job of parenting to mechanisms that can never work properly.

Trying to apply filtering to a family members of different ages and expecting it to work properly is madness. Doing the same to an entire country is sheer insanity.

People never seem to ask just why their children are using certain items. Take smartphones for example: just why are children allowed to use them? They don’t need internet access or cameras to stay in touch with parents, and yet the general public is being told they have to give up their privacy so that a false sense of security can be given to parents. Anybody who thinks sufficient restrictions can be placed on items such as ipads to prevent access to inappropriate material might also want to read this before supporting the idea of replacing real parenting with questionable technical measures. They might also want to consider the fact that a large chunk of such material is created by the children themselves. In such cases filtering is completely pointless since it can’t stop photos being sent from one child to another.

It may also be worth noting that whilst some may regard much of what’s blocked to be distasteful it’s still entirely legal. ISPs have no legal right to inspect legal communications, much less interfere or block them, without consent from the sender as well as the recipient. The sender in this case would be the website owner.

That said, if others insist on implementing such an ineffective method of child protection, then they really ought to at least make sure that the needs of others are taken into account. If the ability of webmasters to communicate with the outside world is going to be interfered with then it ought to be properly controlled, and not just done on a whim.

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