Last week the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee published a report of their inquiry into “Harmful content on the Internet and in video games“. They make a number of recommendations including a self-regulatory body to set rules for Internet companies to force them to protect users; that sites should provide a “watershed” so that grown-up material cannot be viewed before 9pm; that YouTube should screen material for forbidden content; that “suicide websites” should be blocked; that ISPs should be forced to block child sexual abuse image websites whatever the cost, and that blocking of bad content was generally desirable.
You will discern a certain amount of enthusiasm for blocking, and for a “something must be done” approach. However, in coming to their conclusions, they do not, in my view, seem to have listened too hard to the evidence, or sought out expertise elsewhere in the world…
Google/YouTube told them that 10 hours of video was posted every minute, and the amount is increasing. In the oral evidence session an MP helpfully suggested: “That video content is tagged. You do not need to look at every single minute of video content. Surely you could have people who would look at the video content which is tagged with labels which suggest it could be inappropriate.” Of course “happy_slapping.wmv” or “fluffy_bunnies.avi” must always contain exactly what it says on the tin (not!) but unaccountably Google said it was a “fair suggestion”, so perhaps my cynicism is misplaced.
However, back to blocking.
I submitted some evidence of my own, which the committee summarised, reasonably accurately:
Dr Richard Clayton, a researcher in the Security Group of the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University and author of several academic papers on methods for blocking access to Internet content, pointed out that there was no single blocking method which was both inexpensive and discerning enough to block access to only one part of a large website (such as FaceBook). In his view, the fatal flaw of all network-level blocking schemes was the ease with which they could be overcome, either by encrypting content or by the use of proxy services hosted outside the UK.
The committee’s conclusion, having read this was:
At a time of rapid technological change, it is difficult to judge whether blocking access to Internet content at network level by Internet service providers is likely to become ineffective in the near future. However, this is not a reason for not doing so while it is still effective for the overwhelming majority of users.
which I suppose logically means that the committee thinks that blocking should now be discarded as a policy option — but somehow I think that isn’t their intended meaning.
The Committee should perhaps have a look at this Australian report, which found that ISP level content filtering (and in Australia the politicians want to use ISP level filtering to provide a child-friendly Internet) did work (up to a point) at Tier 3 (the smallest) ISPs. The up-to-a-point is that unlike previous tests the systems didn’t completely wreck the browsing experience by slowing it down. However, the systems blocked only 85-98% of illegal material and similar percentages of material suitable for adults but not for younger children. Interestingly some products were better at different categories.
Getting that many sites wrong is really quite significant, so it’s difficult to see this as a ringing endorsement for blocking the web. Additionally, the Australian report found that the blocking was useless on “non-web” protocols (such as peer-to-peer) and their report specifically didn’t consider cost, or ease of circumvention — so it’s not just UK politicians not wanting to consider evidence on that topic!
Finally, I should note that the Culture Media and Sport Committee has also ignored some rather more recent academic work. The MPs have put into their report that they were horrified to discover that child sexual abuse images took 24 hours to remove in the UK. What (should they ever learn of it) will they make of the recent discovery by Tyler Moore and myself that shows that if the website is hosted abroad then a month is more to be expected?