Sunday 28 July 2013

How David Cameron's Internet firewall would change the internet

This article will detail a number of practical considerations relating to the roll-out of mandatory opt-out national "porn firewalls" announced by David Cameron in July 2013. For a much more comprehensive article detailing various other considerations such as the morality of censorship, please see my previous article on the subject, and for a satirical look at the process that may have led to these proposals, please check out this purely hypothetical conversation.

Firewall implementation

The Prime Minister has clearly stated that these Internet censorship filters will be rolled out on an opt-out basis. If the legislation is passed (which is extremely likely given that all opponents will be smeared as pornography supporters and associated with rape porn, paedophilia and the corruption of childhood - an untenable position for the Labour party opposition) it seems likely that you will soon be presented with an option by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) which will probably look something like this.
Parental controls have been installed on your Internet connection.
In order to manage these controls select change settings.
[ticked box] Accept
[unticked box] Change settings

If you chose to accept and leave the settings unchanged (as some 95% of computer users always do) the full "parental control" firewall will be installed automatically. If you chose to change the settings, you will likely be confronted with a second page, with "parental control" options which will appear something like this:
Deselect categories to disable filtering
[ticked box] Pornography
[ticked box] Games
[ticked box] Social Networking
[ticked box] File sharing sites
[ticked box] Alcohol
[ticked box] Smoking
[ticked box] Drugs
[ticked box] Violent material and weapons
[ticked box] Extremist and terrorist related content
[ticked box] Anorexia and eating disorder websites
[ticked box] Suicide related websites
[ticked box] Web forums
[ticked box] Esoteric material
[ticked box] Web blocking circumvention tools
Note: The Open Rights Group have described a similar censorship regime, however, their site seems to be describing an opt-in configuration and the Prime Minister has explicitly stated that the "parental control" filters will be installed on an opt-out basis, hence the slight difference between what ORG state as a possibility and what I have described here.

Web user profiling

The fact that Internet users will be expected to either accept the firewall or to consciously opt out of various options will create an excellent opportunity for web user profiling. The ability of US and UK intelligence agencies to access our private information has been made absolutely clear from the Snowden revelations. Knowing people's choices in their firewall options will be of enormous benefit to intelligence agencies and the countless private sector subcontractors that they provide with open access to our private data and communications.

Perhaps the simplest way to think about web user profiling is to consider it as a kind of credit rating. People that accept the filter without altering the options will be considered "low risk", whilst those that change the options will increase the likelihood that they are subjected to surveillance. An individual that unblocks pornography, alcohol and cigarettes would probably still fall into a fairly "low risk" category, those that enable circumvention tools (P2P networks, Proxy websites, VPNs ...) would be considered "high risk" and anyone daft enough to deliberately unblock extremist and terrorist content would be basically asking to be put into the "very high risk" category and subjected to repeated state surveillance.

Web monitoring

That national surveillance organisations have the powers to compel private companies to reveal our private data to them is absolutely beyond question now. The roll out of so-called "parental control" filters at the national scale will be a wonderful opportunity for the surveillance state to access our online activity because all of our web activity will be funneled through the firewall programmes for vetting.

This kind of continuous monitoring is precisely the method already used by the TalkTalk firewall system that David Cameron has based his web censorship model upon. That the operator of the TalkTalk firewall, that David Cameron is full of praise for, is the Chinese company Huawei (which has been deemed a threat to American national security by US intelligence officials) seems to be of no concern at all to the Prime Minister.


Dr Martyn Thomas, chair of the IT policy panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology stated that:

"There's certainly a concern about the process of how a web address gets added to a blacklist - who knows about it? And who has an opportunity to appeal against it?"
Given that Cameron is full of praise for the unaccountable Huawei system operated by TalkTalk, it seems likely that the web monitoring systems will be installed on an ad hoc basis by the various ISPs with little or no accountability and no recourse to appeal should a website find itself added to the blacklist by the keyword algorithms used by the ISPs.

Essentially, if a website is found to include too many blacklisted words such as "porn", "rape", "sex", "violence", "war", "dieting tips", "depression", "play", "games", "chat", "forum", "Facebook", "Twitter", "suicide", "bet", "gambling", "terrorism", "Taliban", "weapons",  "spiritualism", "protest", "alcohol", "drugs", "beer", "cannabis", "smoking", "cigarettes" or contains any kind of chat facilities it will be automatically added to one or more of the web filtering categories and there will be little or nothing that the website owner will be able to do to reverse the censorship of their site.

There is however an alternative to algorithmic keyword blacklisting, which is the establishment of a national web monitoring and categorisation system. It may seem preferable to have a large bureaucracy of web monitors assessing which censorship categories a website will be subjected to, however there is absolutely nothing like this in the Conservative party proposals, and it would be extremely unlikely that they would set up an independent monitoring bureaucracy, given the normal methodology of the Tory party is the outsourcing of the functions of government to the private sector.

Conflicts of interest

If web censorship is left up to the individual ISPs to administer on an ad hoc basis (as seems likely), surely huge conflicts of interests may arise. Just as Tesco stopped stocking copies of Private Eye magazine after they exposed various dodgy Tesco tax-dodging scams, surely ISP will be tempted to use their new censorship powers to prevent their customers from gaining accessing websites that are critical of their business practices, or that expose their tax-dodging activities.

Accidental filtering

It is absolutely clear that whichever web censorship system is adopted (ad hoc algorithmic keyword analysis or a national censorship bureaucracy), mistakes will be made. There would obviously be more potential for mistakes with the probable ad hoc implementation of algorithmic censorship, since web crawling bots are unable to discern the correct context in which words are used, they'll simply stamp out websites that breech their arbitrary keyword analysis rules.

An independent web censorship bureaucracy would make fewer mistakes because human analysis should avoid the worst cases of arbitrary keyword censorship, since humans are more capable of determining words in their proper context. However mistakes will still be made, especially by people with personal agendas to push.

To demonstrate how a human administered system is fallible, perhaps we should consider how "pornography" is defined. To most people pornography probably means something like "content created explicitly for the purposes of sexual gratification", however this isn't really an accurate description. To a "pervert", kidswear catalogues or perfectly innocent pictures of children at the beach are pornographic material to be used for sexual gratification. Should access to these kinds of images be banned? How about the work of countless artists throughout the ages who have created artistic representations of the naked human form? To a prudish person working at a government censorship agency, the temptation to abuse their powers in order to censor things that are not actually explicitly pornographic, but which they disapprove of, would surely be overwhelming, especially if they knew that there was little oversight or recourse to appeal against their arbitrary decisions.

Web content

Whichever web censorship system is implemented (the almost certain ad hoc algo-bot arrangement favoured by David Cameron, or the state censorship bureau option) there will be a number of consequences for websites owners.

Sites that rely on commercial revenue will obviously be disincentivised from publishing content deemed likely to trigger the censorship algorithms. Coverage of important issues like pornography, child abuse, LGBT issues, eating disorders, depression, suicide, domestic violence, drug use and sexual health advice will be forced out of mainstream coverage, and made virtually inaccessible to anyone whose family has enabled web censorship in their home.Another factor to consider is that any website which allows user interactions will be in danger of suffering web censorship if they don't carefully moderate and delete any comments or links posted on their site that may trigger the algorithms. Probably the safest way to ensure that no such thing happens would be for websites to not only self censor the content of the site, but to remove the possibility of user interaction entirely.

Larger commercial websites will probably have greater recourse to appeal against being blacklisted, given that they will employ teams of web traffic analysts, who will be able to determine whether the site is being blocked by particular ISPs and legal teams to confront ISPs and prepare legal actions, but smaller commercial websites and independent non-commercial sites will just have to suffer, probably without even knowing they've been found guilty without trial and blacklisted, resulting in severe erosion of their readership or commercial revenues.

David Cameron's Internet firewall will silence countless independent websites and harm the commercial revenues of many legitimate businesses. It will drive coverage of certain legitimate issues off the Internet, and also drive website owners to shut down the freedom to comment on their content.

Not only will Cameron's firewall directly censor the Internet, it will also lead to indirect censorship as people take self-censorship measures out of fear of being silenced entirely by Cameron's Internet firewall regime.

It is probable that small websites like mine will be censored by the firewall because I have occasionally chosen to write about issues such as pornography, terrorism and drugs (see the list of "bad words" I used in the blacklisting section of this very article). Because I have a life outside of my social activism I barely find enough time in the day to even write and publicise my work, let alone devote countless hours to scouring my traffic stats to figure out whether my work is being blocked by a Tory state censorship regime and attempting to mount legal appeals.

Freedom of speech

Unlike citizens of the United States, the British public have no national constitutional guarantees of their freedom of speech. If access to an American website were blocked under instruction from the American government for nothing more than triggering an automatic keyword algorithm, the owner of the website would be able to claim a breach of their constitutional right to free speech had occurred and seek legal redress.

The closest thing the UK has to a constitutional right to freedom of expression is Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but there are so many get-out clauses written into this legislation that it is rendered virtually meaningless. Even it were applicable, the Conservatives are absolutely determined to scrap the Human Rights Act and become the first country ever to withdraw from the ECHR, presumably so that there are fewer legal challenges to mad Tory policies such as Cameron's Internet censorship firewall, secret courts, private sector justice, retroactively applied laws and the Internet snooper's charter.

It seems unlikely, even if small, independent bloggers like myself found out that their website was being censored by the Cameron Internet firewall regime, that they would have any recourse to the courts to challenge the state mandated censorship of their work.

Denial of Service

One interesting area to consider is how the UK state deals with other groups that attempt to block access to web content. One of the strategies employed by activist groups such as Anonymous is called a Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS). These attacks are used to block access to a target website by flooding it with millions of fake requests for information.

The UK government has essentially classified this kind of protest strategy as "economic terrorism" and outlawed the practice, setting a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment for individuals that are involved in launching DDoS attacks.

The introduction of David Cameron's Internet censorship regime will leave us in the ludicrous situation where an individual could face 10 years in jail for attempting to temporarily block access to criminal organisations like HSBC or Barclays, whilst the government actually forces ISPs to introduce web filtering firewalls to permanently block access to countless perfectly legal websites.


Even if we naively assume that David Cameron's opt-out "parental controls" have not been designed as a Trojan Horse to implement mass web censorship and surveillance in order to crush political dissent, it is undeniably going to result in the accidental censorship of countless websites (commercial and non-profit alike) that trigger the "bad word" algorithms used in the kind of web censorship technology David Cameron champions.

Due to lack of oversight and accountability, the grounds for legal recourse for commercial losses or freedom of speech violations will be marginal.

The existence of a national web censorship regime, won't just result in the explicit censorship of perfectly legal material, it will also lead to a massive rise in self-censorship as website owners refuse to discuss certain topics, and shut down their forums out of fear of triggering the censorship algo-bots.

The potential for abuse of the system by the secret services, their private contractors, other government agencies and the private ISP companies (that will be given free reign to administer their own web-censorship regimes) is enormous.

The hypocrisy of the government mandating ISPs to permanently block access to perfectly legal material, whilst threatening individuals that may attempt to temporarily block access to criminal organisations with up to 10 years imprisonment couldn't be clearer.

All the while Cameron's "protect the innocence of childhood" pseudo-justification for the introduction of a vast web surveillance and censorship operation will be glaringly invalidated on a daily basis by the continued existence of stuff like Page 3 of the S*n, government jobs websites offering lap-dancing work to under-18s, the Daily Mail "sidebar of smut" and Number 1 smash hit songs about inflicting brutal anal abuse.

What you can do ...

The petition on the government website needs 100,000 signatures to force apolitical debate on the issue. If you are opposed to David Cameron's "firewall" please sign it and share it as widely as you are able.

The petition

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More articles from
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A purely hypothetical conversation
A warped Tory redefinition of "rights"
Why dissent is positive
The economic case against tax-dodging

Secret Courts and the very Illiberal Democrats
Retroactive laws are fascist laws
What is ... a justification narrative?
The Iain Duncan Smith fallacy: Libeling the evidence

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