My porn-blocking blog post got porn-blocked!

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 08.35.38Just to make the point about porn-blocking filters even more concrete, I’ve discovered that my blog post on porn-blocking has been automatically blocked by Strathmore University’s system (thanks to @LucyPurdon for pointing it out). Strathmore University is in Kenya, and I don’t know much about it, but the implication of the message is clear: the blog post was blocked because the system saw too many mentions of the word pornography – I’m still not clear about the proxies issue, though.

What does all this imply? Well, it shows the limitations of an automated system: analysing my blog post would indeed find I mention the word ‘pornography’ rather a lot – appropriately, as I’m discussing how we deal with pornography on the net – but it certainly doesn’t make the post pornographic. Any automated system will have that kind of a limitation… and will therefore block a whole swathe of material that is educational, informative and directly relevant to important issues. Automatically block things this way and you will drastically reduce access to information about crucial subject – sex is just one of them. Cutting down access to information, as well as all the freedom of speech issues, will leave kids less well informed, and less able to deal with these issues. Education is the key – and filters will and do(!) reduce that.

One key thing to note: the Strathmore University system is at least transparent – it tells you why a site is blocked, which might at least give you some way to get around it. Many systems (for example the way that many ISPs implement the IWF’s blacklist) are not transparent: you don’t know why you can’t get access to a site, either getting a ‘site not found’ message or even nothing. With those systems, there’s even more of a problem – and I have a feeling that those are the systems that David Cameron is likely to push….

Porn-blocking filters not only don’t work in their own terms, they’re actually damaging!

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36 thoughts on “My porn-blocking blog post got porn-blocked!

  1. A little Deja Vu here with memories of AOL blocking searches including Scunthorpe, Essex, Middlesex etc. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Especially when it’s idiots like Camoron using it.

  2. Paul, I suspect it is not actually blocked as proxies. I work in filtering, and I recognise that blockpage as a dansguardian blockpage. Dansguardian tends to “overmatch”, it puts content from porn in with other “bad” content and even if there’s only a little proxy content it will report on it (fwiw I suspect the phrases “bypass filters” is what’s triggering it, somewhere down in the comments).

    Porn filtering is very hard, and it’s tough to get it right even most of the time – a porn filter with no recourse to the admin to unblock is a bad situation for anyone to find themselves in – and given the level of support consumer ISPs an afford to provide I am sure unblock requests will be way down the list.

    • Thanks – I’m not ‘technical’ enough to know exactly what counts as ‘proxy content’. Can you explain a bit further? The blog is a pretty straightforward piece of writing, with no images and the only link being to a BBC news page. I do mention pornography a lot, of course!

      • By proxy content i’m talking about things that say “bypass filters” – mr. bryant probably is onto something with VPN too. This rather brutal content filter has bascially picked up as “porn with a hint of proxy” so it listed both as block reasons. Check out mousematrix.com to see what these proxies look like – they’ll become prevalent if ISP blocking ever does take off, and they are really dangerous to privacy as the proxy owner can easily alter your traffic. Most proxies move domains rapidly, and many offer encrypted services, which will make bog standard ISP-level URL filtering next to worthless. Some of these proxies even run by the kids who we’re trying to protect…

    • This, probably coupled with someone mentioning VPNs.

      The university probably has it in place because students will likely try to use VPNs and other tools to bypass the campus proxy to exploit the fast JANET connection for downloading.

      • So is it the combination of mentioning pornography and VPNs? Either way, not good!

        One other point – presumably the filtering software looks at comments as well, so if you want to get someone’s page blocked, you just mention something dodgy in the comments and the whole page would get blocked….

  3. Hey Paul – talk of “proxies” – one of the methods one may use to circumvent content blocks (most usually so you can watch South Park episodes in the UK, in my experience) is another topic (“web blocking circumvention tools”) that would be filtered in Cameron’s cybersmut free utopia.

    https://www.openrightsgroup.org/blog/2013/sleepwalking-into-censorship

    The key thing about these “PORN LAWS” is that a lot more than porn is blocked. Such as “esoteric material”….

      • @ paulbernal64: Overblocking isn’t the only issue, either. A good example is T-Mobile’s Content Lock which faithfully blocks FFN because of it’s M-rated content, but didn’t stop me accessing ASSTR!

    • That article you linked was (surprise, surprise) blocked by and open WiFi network in a public library because it mentioned pornography.

      • @ Robert de Jong: Some libraries are like that and some are great. For example, the libraries in Rotherham have the same filtering for everyone, no matter what their age, whereas Derbyshire Libraries has heavy filtering for those with children’s library cards, medium filtering for those with young adult cards, and light filtering for those with adult cards. You can even see images, as is evident from the case concerning a pervert who was looking at photos of naked young boys, and got caught by one of the library staff during a routine monitoring run. Seems to me as though Derbyshire’s got the balance between necessary censorship and freedom of speech correct.

  4. So once a site get’s filtered, is there any legal recourse if it’s blocked when it ‘shouldn’t’ be? I guess even that isn’t a simple question since it would probably depend on where the filter is, who administers it, what’s being filtered (blocking competitors might be frowned on more then blocking my blog!), etc. I’m sure they’ve carefully considered all these issues though :/

    • I think you’re right: it would depend very much on the circumstances. I have a rights-based theory, to be mentioned in my forthcoming book, that we have a ‘right to be found (if we want to be found)’, which would come into play here…

      …but one even more important issue is that it would be very hard to even discover you’ve been blocked! Will they have an obligation to tell you? I doubt it…

      • Good point. One of the things I think is wrong with the data protection act is how on earth am I supposed to know who holds my personal data, and this seems pretty similar.
        Also starting to wonder how filtering might interfere with balanced election coverage rules.

  5. Before I did not care about porn blocking on my pc, it changed when I saw my 10 yo sun watching forbidden porn site and link he find on some game related site…. I tried few software’s and free blockers, best solution I did find was on blockingpornsites . com

  6. Once in work I went to http://www.rotherham.gov.uk and it was blocked as Sex/Adult Content – why? It’s only a government site FFS! It did get unblocked, after a polite email to the IT department who hadn’t noticed until then… this was in May 2009!
    This eerily reminds me of the episode of Moral Orel when resident censor Miss Censordoll was forced to go on the black market TO BUY SOMETHING THAT SHE HAD BANNED HERSELF!!

    See the analogy…. this filter is just an attempt to censor what the government doesn’t like.

    The best censorship is at the discretion of the family, individual or employer!

  7. Hi Paul,

    Good post, and in general I agree with you; filtering is a continual frustration, technology cannot and will not ever be able to make sensible human decisions.

    Just one point I would slightly disagree with, that being the IWF blacklist. This blacklist has an explicit function which is to block known illegal sites that have been individually investigated as such by a human. In that sense, no person has any reason to know what is on that site and nor should there be any message or clues to allow people to circumvent, whether through curiosity or more sinister reasons. This isn’t a form of censorship (I know you didn’t say that, but many will); the IWF do a magnificent job that most could not do.

    I’ve blogged quite a bit on internet filtering in the past – feel free to have a look through these which are mainly from a school context. Also, I am currently running a poll to gain people’s thoughts on the PM’s internet filtering statement – please feel free to pass to your followers, the more the merrier.

    Poll – https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1gkzK3g82-n1Ph8vPqkWfoqac59KEkHsRdd1oojIBWfo/viewform

    Blogs –
    Guide to internet filtering – http://www.esafety-adviser.com/blog/dummies-guide-to-internet-filtering-for-schools/
    Pragmatic view of internet filtering – http://www.esafety-adviser.com/blog/a-pragmatic-view-of-internet-filtering-from-the-perspective-of-school-and-la/

    Thanks

    Alan

    • Thanks very much – and in general I agree with you about the IWF, though even humans make mistakes, as the Virgin Killer farrago demonstrated for the IWF, and there has to be a way to deal with them when they happen…

    • Not really possible – if you allow a tag, then the ‘real’ porn sites will tag themselves as educational in order to bypass the filter. Overblocking is pretty much inevitable with an automated filter system, which is one of the main objections to it!

  8. I heard something interesting… apparently BHS had bought themselves a domain name with .xxx in the end, something like http://www.bhs.xxx, and the same for Marks and Spencers, as redirects to the main site!
    Will these be blocked?

  9. I worked as a project manager for a regional agency for several years and could not access any sites on adult social care because of the word adult leading to the blocking software not allowing me access. This will be a complete fiasco and I am certain it is not going to work. Anyway with the vast sales of Shades of Grey on kindle to give one example the percentage of the population buying erotic material of one kind or another is so huge that large numbers of people are not going to be happy about their browsing or downloading habits being scrutinised so closely.
    One useful thing to look at is the way the Obscene Publications Act was used for years. It did little to control or limit the amount of pornography in the U.K. But it was used inappropriately in many occasions. For example against people who produced
    Literature on how to cultivate marajuana. That was deemed liable to corrupt. These filters will similarly expand their remit rapidly to cover anything related to terrorism, illicit drug use etc etc. inevitably they will screen out sites which have political debate about contentious issues. This is I think the real intention behind it.
    Just in relation to the Internet Watch Foundation being allegedly wonderful. They made a lot of effort to get images of a 40 year old heavy metal record banned from Amazon a few years back because they had an image (largely covered up by text) of an under age teenager. The model is probably ready to collect her pension now so I can’t see how she was being protected. The ridiculous outcome of this fiasco was that a record cover which is owned by hundreds of thousands of people round the world cant be seen on Amazon U.K. Even though you can still actually buy the record from them. If they are really up their eyeballs closing down child abuse sites why did they have time for this? Make no mistake they are a censorship agency not law enforcement.

  10. To illustrate the inconsistency (or uselessness) of these filters, the filter (Websense) on my work laptop is blocking access to this page, classifying it as “Adult Material”, but it lets me access the page that the Strathmore University filter blocked. Go figure!

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