The British government has joined China, Iran and Australia in seeking to actively restrict access to certain portions of the Internet.
Communications officials have revealed plans to ask Internet service providers in the UK to restrict access to pornographic websites, especially for minors.
However, ISPs have given that idea the thumbs-down on the grounds that it’s up to parents and caregivers to deal with the issue.
It will be difficult to restrict access to online porn, say the plan’s critics, and it’s almost impossible to detect and prevent minors from doing so once they get on the Internet.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?
Ed Vaizey, the communications minister for the U.K., told the Sunday Times that he planned to meet with the country’s major broadband providers to discuss blocking access to online porn at the source.
That would mean adults would have to request their ISPs let them access certain restricted sites.
ISPs would have to come up with solutions to protect children from online porn sites, Vaizey reportedly said.
He warned that if a solution wasn’t forthcoming, the government might come up with a new communications bill in the next couple of years.
According to the report, Vaizey wants to set up an age verification scheme to control access to online porn sites.
Talk to Mom and Dad, ISPs say
The U.K. Internet Service Providers’ Association responded by saying it’s the responsibility of parents and caregivers to manage Internet access. It also warned that restrictions on access might have unintended consequences. Mainstream sites like Flickr, for instance, carry some material officials might deem pornographic.
“The proliferation of adult content makes it nearly impossible to filter them out completely,” Ben Butler, director of network abuse at GoDaddy.com, told TechNewsWorld.
Age verification systems are also limited because there’s no way for an ISP to verify the real age of someone on a PC, Butler pointed out.
“Kids don’t tell the truth about their age and can likely get around most age-based restrictions,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, stated. “These kinds of provisions generally are more tied to making a government look like it’s doing something than actually accomplishing anything,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Sometimes Technology Is Only Technology
Blocking or filtering access to websites is easier said than done.
“There are some technical means, such as the ‘looks like skin’ filter that Google uses in its image search; and you could require registration through email, sometimes with credit cards, for sites that might house adult content,” Jonathan Eunice, principal IT analyst at Illuminata, told TechNewsWorld.
“But even putting all these together it’s extremely porous protection at best,” Eunice pointed out. Further, there’s no way to identify adult content with full certainty, and often adult content slips through while terms that might be adult in context, such as the words ‘breast,’ ‘suck’ or ‘rape,’ might be blocked even if the context in which the user is searching is non-sexual.
Further, “millions” of non-commercial sources of Internet pornography are available. “Amazon and Tumblr, for example, host a huge number of images and videos, many of them sexual” Eunice pointed out.
“ISPs do see all the traffic that flows through their networks,” Leon Rishniw, vice president of engineering at CloudMark, told TechNewsWorld. “The challenge at ISP level is finding what technology you can implement and whether it scales up to the volume of data you’re processing.”
Further, the technologies currently available to detect adult content on local PCs are slow, which is a deterrent to ISPs, Rishniw pointed out. Finally, the cost of building infrastructure for detecting adult content into an ISP’s network “are prohibitive, especially when you consider that there’s no value add to the ISP,” Rishniw remarked.
The best solution will likely consist of a combination of technology and supervision by parents, caregivers and the kids themselves, GoDaddy.com’s Butler suggested.
“In order for any technological solution to have the greatest chance of success, it needs to be used in conjunction with increased education for parents, caregivers and children,” Butler stated.