Robert Hampton

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22nd July 2013

Attack the Block

David Cameron has announced that ISPs will block online pornography by default. The “big four” ISPs (BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin) have all signed up voluntarily to the plan, which will see users asked to tick a box to confirm that they want the “Torrent of Filth” (© Daily Mail) to continue to flow freely.

A lot of people are unhappy at this – Virgin Media’s Twitter feed is already overrun with people demanding continued unfettered access to porn.

Won't someone think of the children?!

A typical pro-censorship campaigner

It’s incredibly difficult to argue against this plan, as pro-blocking advocates invariably start shrieking “think of the children!” as soon as anyone dares to question them. So let me say right now that no, children should not be looking at porn. I would argue, though, that is chiefly the parents’ responsibility to prevent this, by supervising their internet access and computer use. Judging by the number of “my 6-year-old ran up a £9,632 bill on an iPhone game!” stories in the press recently, some are not doing so.

I would also argue that adults’ freedom to fap is just as important – and when pictures of naked women are available across the newsagent’s counter courtesy of the Sun and the Daily Star, it’s hard to take seriously any claims that children need to be protected.

Telegraph blogger Mic Wright thinks that the plan is technologically illiterate. He’s absolutely right, but this point has reportedly already been made to Cameron by the ISPs, Google and others – see Rory Cellan-Jones’s reports on the subject. It seems that Cameron simply won’t listen.

If you want more, Paul Bernal, Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the University of East Anglia Law School has written a useful post: 10 questions about Cameron’s ‘new’ porn-blocking. I have some questions of my own, reproduced below.

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4th March 2013

Over Censor-tive

A while back I took the decision to move my main e-mail off my domain host’s account and onto Apple’s iCloud. My main rationale for this was that I wanted to be able to access my e-mail anywhere, and using the iCloud account, which works with my iPhone out of the box (with push notifications to boot), seemed easier than messing about with my domain host’s IMAP settings. Also, Apple’s shiny, lovely, strokable technology did hypnotise me slightly.

Recently, however, Macworld discovered something about Apple’s e-mail service, which has given me pause for thought:-

Apple’s iCloud email service deletes all emails that contain the phrase “barely legal teen” it was revealed today.

Macworld has tested this by sending two test emails from a personal iCloud account. The message read “My friend’s son is already allowed to drive his high-powered car. It’s ridiculous. He’s a barely legal teenage driver? What on earth is John thinking.”

The second email amended the phrase “a barely legal” to “barely a legal”. This second email was delivered fine, whereas the first is still undelivered.

Ars Technica followed this up and Apple confirmed that it was an over-zealous spam filter. Which is fair enough, but I don’t like the idea that the e-mail is just silently deleted (in the test above, it didn’t even make it into a Junk folder).

Before anyone jumps in: no, I do not routinely send or receive e-mails containing the phrase “barely legal teen”. But I wonder what other phrases are being trapped in this way, and how many e-mails are being lost because of it?

It’s a reminder of the control you lose when you entrust your e-mail or other important data to “The Cloud”. We’re told that this is the future of computing, but to get there we’re having to rely an awful lot on a few large corporations, who may not often have the best interests of users at heart.

In summary, I’m going back to my web host’s e-mail service. Or carrier pigeons. Maybe carrier pigeons.

3rd September 2012

The Block Stops Here

The Government, following a lot of wailing from the Daily Mail, is proposing that ISPs should be forced to block “adult” web sites by default. I posted at length about this back in May and I refer you to that post if you’re unfamiliar with the issue. In summary, my objections are as follows:-

  • It is not the Government’s job to be babysitter to an entire nation of internet-using children. Children, of course, should be protected, but that is a parent’s job, through supervision and, if necessary, the use of filtering software on the child’s laptop, phone or tablet.
  • Any “default block” will be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Nobody has defined “adult” web sites properly – is it just porn, or will stuff that’s a bit sweary like b3ta and Viz be blocked too?
  • Inevitably some innocent web sites will get caught up in the block. Two years ago PinkNews, an LGBT news site, found itself categorised as “adult” by mobile phone providers. Imagine if a small business which relies on web customers gets blocked by mistake. It will lose income and suffer damage to its reputation by being identified as “porn”.
  • Anyone wanting unfettered internet access will have to contact their ISP to request it and may have to repeat that request at regular intervals. There are many perfectly innocent reasons for a user to want an uncensored internet, but thanks to the stigma from certain parts of the media, they will feel like they’re putting themselves on a “porn user’s register”.
  • This is, essentially, censorship – and who’s to say that the blocking infrastructure wouldn’t be used in the future for less benevolent reasons? Perhaps UK Uncut’s web site will find itself classed as “adult”?

All of the above ignores the fact that the block will be easily circumvented by anyone even moderately tech-savvy and will therefore be largely useless anyway.

The deadline to respond is 6th September. The consultation web page on the DfE web site is a nightmare, requiring users to download and fill in a Word document. Even then, most of the questions are aimed at parents and not other members of the public – it’s almost as if they don’t want us to have our say!

The Open Rights Group, however, have an easy to use web page to respond to the consultation, and it will even automatically identify your MP and copy him or her in on your consultation response.

I urge you to go and respond, even if it’s only a sentence or two. Remember, this is not about porn, it’s about larger issues of freedom of expression online versus an interfering nanny state.

20th May 2012

The Internet is (not just) for Porn

Those fine upstanding moral guardians at the Daily Mail are crusading against internet pornography. Misogynistic, sleazy, and liable to cause harm to children, the Daily Mail has a circulation of almost 2 million.

Porn did not begin with the internet. I remember the breathless excitement among some of my classmates in school when a top-shelf magazine was smuggled in. Ladies! With no clothes on! It was less exciting for me, as there were already early indications that my interests lay… elsewhere. Nevertheless, the explosion (bad choice of words) in sexual content online means that it is more easily accessible than it ever was before.

Now, the Mail has had enough. It wants internet providers to BAN THIS SICK FILTH, by blocking internet pornography. At the moment some ISPs will block sexually explicit web sites, but most will only do so if the customer specifically requests it, the “opt-out” system. The Mail wants it the other way round – porn blocked by default with the user having to specifically opt-in to be able to view it. Despite warnings from experts that the plan is unworkable, the Government has taken up the idea and is due to launch a consultation.

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28th January 2012

Where the Tweets Have No Name

Ironically, the latest victim of a Twitter mob is… Twitter itself.

On Thursday the microblogging site announced a new policy on deleting or withholding Tweets. A lot of users have interpreted this as censorship and have gone so far as to call for a Twitter blackout in protest.

I’m all for a good Twitter mob wielding virtual pitchforks, #flamingtorches and 140-character protest chants. But in this case the mob is wrong – here’s why:

  1. The new policy is almost exactly the same as the previous one. Twitter has always responded to legitimate demands to remove illegal content, such as DMCA takedown notices against tweets linking to pirated content. The main difference now is that content can be removed on a country-by-country basis rather than censored worldwide.
  2. Oppressive governments will block Twitter anyway. During the height of the Egyptian protests last year, the internet was effectively turned off in that country. During the disputed 2009 election in Iran, the government blocked access to Twitter and other social networking sites, forcing users there to find ways round the block. In China, Twitter is blocked entirely. Is a censored Twitter worse than no Twitter at all?
  3. Twitter is being open and accountable about their policy: affected users will be informed when a Tweet has been “censored”, and Twitter has teamed up with Chilling Effects to list all takedown notices it receives, so users can see for themselves what is being censored.

Mashable has a good post about Twitter’s announcement and why the new policy could actually be good for activists in the long run.