Filtering the internet is never the solution

Posted by on Jul 24, 2013 in words | 0 comments

Ineffective, easily circumvented, dangerously misleading and a very bad precedent.

Much has been said this week about UK PM David Cameron’s proclamation about cracking down on online pornography, specifically child and rape porn. The whole idea being that he’s planning to stop the corrosion of innocence while simultaneously removing any encouragement that such content gives to potential/current sex offenders. Oh, and he might bundle in self-harm websites for good measure.

The Daily Mail campaigned for this and celebrated on their website with lots of sexed-up imagery of celebs in bikinis. Personally I’d suggest that their column of semi-clad reality tv stars  is also harmful to impressionable children (who can end up with body-image issues); at least as harmful as images of grown-ups enjoying themselves in perfectly legal ways. The photographs of topless women on page 3 of The Sun won’t be subject to this filtering because Mr Cameron thinks that they aren’t too pornographic*. Written content apparently won’t face the same default blocking that images and videos will – evidentially you can’t write a hardcore story that’s as vile as a photograph.

I guess it’s quite a subjective thing then, David! Computers are bad at working out what is the right and wrong thing to filter subjectively. They are good at following well-defined rules, but in this case it’s impossible to define the rules, because even David Cameron doesn’t know what they should be. People are already suggesting the problems of accidental filtering of sex education/medical content and even renaissance art, and Cameron acknowledges that implementing this will be problematic, but don’t let that get in the way of rushing a half-assed system into place in order to appease the media, eh?

Incidentally, I’ve seen some people suggesting that it’s mainly men who are speaking out against the porn filtering, but there are people of all genders with whom I would disagree about what was acceptable on both ends of the spectrum. I don’t think I’d want any of them deciding what anyone was allowed to look at.

The stuff that is rightly illegal won’t be impacted by any of this because it will just all disappear onto the darknet, so the barrier to entry may be higher, but that’s just reducing the visibility, not the problem. Almost like brushing it under the carpet. Far better to use the money being wasted on this approach to focus on hunting and bringing to justice the people who are actually harming/raping children and other adults.

I have children and I will be making sure that our home doesn’t have filtered internet. If children are properly educated and supervised, they don’t accidentally come across harmful images/videos on the internet. Certainly no more harmful than those that they would see on news sites of violent events. If you’re worried about your child’s online safety, don’t let them use the internet totally unsupervised and make sure that you are the one that teaches them about sex before they get the chance to hear it from someone else (whether that’s in the school yard or online).

When it boils down to it this shouldn’t just be about pornography; it should be about equipping children to deal with all sorts of bad things that happen in the world. It’s as much about them being able to see pictures on the news of a massacre and understanding that that isn’t ok. Filtering and monitoring may help, but they aren’t the complete solution. The solution is educating children and being open to them, so that they know they can ask about things that they don’t understand. I wonder how many parents will stop worrying about their kids being online because they think that the government has made it safe? Our streets are policed too, but that doesn’t mean they’re totally safe for little children.

However, that’s not even my biggest beef with this. The whole thing, apart from being an unimplementable farce, just gets the public used to the idea of a filtered internet that’s there for our protection. Once you start to accept the idea that someone else gets to decide what you’re allowed to see/access/know, then it’s easier for them to decide to filter other things that suit them but aren’t necessarily for your own good. They might decide that it’s in the interests of national security that nobody knows about PRISM, for example, so that there can’t be a public debate on whether or not it’s a good thing, etc. The trouble with filters at the ISP is always going to be that you don’t get to know what you aren’t being allows to see. As a friend of mine put it, “if we let someone else filter what we see, then we might as well move to North Korea”.

One of the greatest things about the internet is the availability of information. I will never agree with filtering that availability. This is nothing short of government censorship – the sort of thing that we deplore when it’s other countries doing it. I would strongly support greater penalties for people who abuse children – isn’t that a better problem to solve? There’s little point trying to implement a technological solution to a social problem. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to make that argument…

Over the years I’ve had several discussions around web filtering inside many organisations. The sorts of places that want to make sure that their employees can’t access Facebook, because if they don’t, their employees will waste all of their time on Facebook. That, like the PM’s newly proposed filtering, is applying an unworkable solution to the wrong problem. Where I work, in a university, if we were to block Facebook it would take literally minutes for the students to share the many, many ways that you can work round filtering. In companies that block certain “time wasting” websites, I sincerely hope that they’ve also stopped people bringing in books, newspapers, smartphones, oh, and banned people from looking out of the window, chatting about their weekends or other things that are so dangerous to productivity.

Hell, if the only way that a company can get their staff to actually do the work that they’re paying them for is by blocking their access to Facebook, then what on earth are the managers doing? Either they’re employing the wrong people, or they aren’t giving them the right targets to hit or appropriate motivation (which may include “if you’re spending all your day on Facebook, you get fired”). Either way, filtering the internet isn’t going to stop disenfranchised employees from procrastinating! Where a company is sending a message to its staff that it can’t trust them to not waste time on the web, they’re doing it wrong. In talking to people from such organisations, I’ve never heard a single one saying “it’s a really good thing that they filter the internet.”

For a great example of the ineffectiveness of internet filtering, we need to look no further than The Pirate Bay. The music and movie industries campaigned to have it taken off the internet, and in the UK at least you can’t visit The Pirate Bay’s primary URL through several ISPs. Of course they just added a bunch of other URLs and proxies that aren’t blocked because there’s no way that the legislation or ISPs can keep pace. The blocking of the site also triggered the Streisand effect, raising awareness and actually increasing traffic to it. A job well done!

The bottom line is that the way that the internet works means that it is great for making information free and available. It’s actually really, really difficult to stifle information on the internet, and most of the time that is a very good thing. It means that it’s harder for people to become oppressed. It’s harder for people to fall victim to propaganda. Yes it makes it possible, even easier in some cases, for people to commit crimes, but it is basically just a means of communication. Those crimes are still crimes whether the internet is involved or not, so prosecute the crimes, because trying to filter the internet is not going to work. Ever.

* Full disclosure: I also don’t believe that women’s breasts/nipples are to be feared (any more than those of a man). However, I don’t believe that they are news either.

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That sucks! There’s no privacy online.

Posted by on Jul 8, 2013 in words | 0 comments

TLAs* probably have access to all your online communications. Everything in your email, your Google Docs, your Facebook messages, your SkyDrive, your Twitter DMs and everything else. They can likely tell who you’ve been calling and texting, and where you are from the GPS in your phone.

There’s been an awful lot about this in the news lately, with the focus largely on the US intelligence agencies and GCHQ in the UK (the Chinese and Russians must be having a good chuckle to themselves), and it’s generated a significant public outcry. The thing that surprises me the most is that people were aware of these huge spying organizations – what the heck did people think they were all doing??

Gone are the days of spies hanging round shady alleys in Berlin, meeting someone from the other side with a scrap of intel. In today’s world, humint just doesn’t scale. It’s not like elint is always better, but you can collect a heck of a lot more data at the speed of light and analyse it to spot patterns that simply wouldn’t have been visible before. This is an age where not every threat to your nation is another nation. It’s harder to see where the threats are coming from.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that people shouldn’t be able to get a bit of privacy, but I do wonder if people are worrying a bit too much about the wrong thing.

Actually, after the initial shock, especially in the tech media, we’re starting to see more reports of “ordinary Americans” who are happy that the government is taking these steps to protect them from terrorists. People seem to be quite open to the idea of establishing precrime investigation. Stopping terrorists ahead of time is a good idea. Stopping run-of-the-mill murderers is a good idea too, right? It’s like Person of Interest; I like that series – all the bad guys get what’s coming to them with little collateral damage. Or maybe it’s like Minority Report – it depends on your perspective, and who is in power.

Here’s an interesting thing that I was mulling over recently: if governments around the world could nip everything bad in the bud (terrorism, violent crime, theft, everything), would that actually have some side-effects that we wouldn’t want? I know that sounds crazy, but I did start to wonder whether I’d want my child growing up with nothing to fear from other people, and how would it affect economies, etc? My head isn’t capable of getting that all untwisted (like the mess you can get in with time travel), so feel free to tell me how crazy I might be in the comments.

* Three Letter Agencies.

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The Wishlist: Improvements to Windows Phone

Posted by on Jul 8, 2013 in words | 1 comment

The Wishlist is home to our tech desires. It may be improvements to existing things, or something that doesn’t exist yet, but we really, really want.

This time we’re talking about Windows Phone. We’ve both been using Windows Phones since WP7 first came to market, WP8 since that dropped, and before that Windows Mobile. That’s not to say that we’re devoid of experience of the other mobile platforms – between us we’ve owned dozens of mobile devices with nearly every OS going (except WebOS, although that nearly happened). So, we know what we want and we don’t think we’re being too demanding in this instance.


  • I want a Windows Phone 8 phablet, with a >5″ screen. It’s probably got to be a Nokia because they support their devices with new software and services more than any of the other OEMs. It has to be 1080p and it’s going to require Microsoft supporting that resolution with a new tile layout because scaling up is not good enough.
  • I want proper podcast support in the OS. That means Microsoft opening up the podcast directory in the Store worldwide. On top of that though, I want to be able to add a podcast URL on the phone and subscribe to it. At the moment the OS gives the impression that podcasts are supported wherever you are, but it’s just misleading you. Microsoft have updated the desktop sync support for podcasts, so you can subscribe to them on your PC in iTunes/Zune/whatever and have them copied over when you connect. That’s just not good enough; in fact I think it’s a bit of a joke. That’s the sort of support you need for an MP3 player that doesn’t have its own data connection. The Verge’s Tom Warren indicates that better international podcast support could be coming in an upcoming GDR2 release, but Microsoft haven’t confirmed this yet. I’ve tried the best rated podcast apps on Windows Phone and none of them are up to scratch.
  • I want the Calendar live tile to show more than just the next appointment. I don’t care if it does that by making better use of the space, or by flipping the tile to show “next” on one side and “later” on the other.
  • I want edge gestures. I know that Ben and I don’t entirely agree on this, and I know that it would have to be done carefully, but having used Windows 8/RT on a touch screen, I’m getting used to swiping in from the edges of the screen and I think that adding them to Windows Phone would be great to add consistency across the board – heck, we know the Xbox One is going to have a swipe up gesture. I’d like to use the swipe in from the left edge to manage multitasking like in Windows, and I might even be coming round to the idea of swiping in from the right to access some charm-like functionality.
  • I want to be able to have two apps on the screen at the same time, a la Windows 8 snap and newer Samsung Android phones.
  • I want a notification center and quick access to toggle radios on and off.
  • I want a Swype-style virtual keyboard (and so does my wife).
  • I want to be able to set a default “lens” for the camera, so that it jumps straight to that when I launch the camera with the shutter button.
  • I would like to be able to specify which apps can use a data connection when I’m roaming, limiting the others to wifi.
  • I want to see consistent video output across Windows Phone devices. It would be nice to have HDMI output, but failing that I’d like to see DLNA built in to the OS and not relying on OEM apps.


I don’t think my list of niggles is as “thorough” as Jon’s but I do have some big gripes around how WP8 handles music particularly its handling of the “Xbox Music” service

  • The ability to download & keep in sync certain playlists from xbox music
  • The ability for the Music app to “match” songs I’ve copied to my phone via USB against the songs in playlist from xbox music (currently the device sees things separately)
  • A notification centre would be kind of handy & some options like “Do not disturb” for notifications during specific times of day (or night!)
  • The default lense would be handy on a phone, however Nokia look like they will deliver this as part of their Amber update – no news on if that’s Nokia exclusive or not yet
  • Smarter data connections would be handy for blocking when roaming
  • Proper support for podcasting like we had back in the Zune days with WP7. I just want the things to be downloaded and ready to go when I decide I want them
  • I’m not sure how I feel about edge gestures or larger screen phablet devices, I think I’d be quite happy with something like the Lenovo Miix (8”) running full Windows 8 as my companion device and keeping my phone at about 4.3” or so… we shall see

The thing I’m finding most disturbing about WP at the moment is we’ve had Teched (Europe & America), Build and currently WPC with very little lip service being paid to WP. Hardly any news or discussion about it’s roadmap or planned upgrades etc… the only news out there are leaks and rumour. Come on MS throw us a bone

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