Thursday, 23 December 2010

Pornography opt-in filter proposal

It looks like the government have made a relatively significant policy announcement before the new year after all so I'll do a quick piece on the so-called opt-in filter proposed to block adolescents from accessing pornography online.

It is very tempting to get stuck into the morals of pornography in general but, in this case, it is largely irrelevant. There's a very simple explanation for why it's irrelevant, such a filter is impossible. Mr Vaizey's reasoning is that, because ISPs (Internet Service Providers) managed to block child pornography, the same is possible with legal pornography.

Firstly, ISPs did not manage it with child pornography, they managed to block most of the sites that offer it but, as is demonstrated whenever the media run across another paedophile, those who are determined to access it still manage to build up hard drives with thousands of images.

Secondly, if the ISPs cannot block all the content when there are only a few thousand sites that broadcast child pornography. How does Mr Vaizey expect them to manage it with the millions of web pages that contain legal pornography? Google estimates that 1.1% of web pages are pornographic (and that was the lowest figure I could find, some estimates go up to 70%). With estimates of the number of web pages ranging from 8 billion to 29.6 billion to hundreds of billions it can be said that, even if the lowest figure is taken, there are likely at least 100 million web pages depicting pornography on the internet.

So, ISPs can't even block all the pornography from a few thousand webpages and they are expected to be able to block at least 100 million? To quote the secretary general (a.k.a. head) of the Association of ISPs (ISPA), it would, at most, "only be effective in preventing inadvertent access".

To be perfectly blunt, adolescents do not access pornography "inadvertently".

For such a filter as this to be effective it would have to either blanket block every website which could possibly be related to pornography (which would also block several hundred million which aren't porn, such as news reports which mention the subject or websites giving advice to adolescents about sexual health and relationships) or only block the most obvious sites which would still leave tens of millions that adolescents could access.

In short, it is not technically possible to create such a filter so this announcement is just like the government's announcement on an immigration 'cap'. It is designed to sound good in the media but has virtually no substance behind it. I can only hope Mr Vaizey realises this because it would be very worrying if, as the minister effectively in charge of the internet (among other things), he didn't understand how it works.