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Cameron’s Christmas Cock-up On Porn Blocking

Porn blocking has been announced – through the Daily Mail – without research and without listening, says Tom Brewster

On by Thomas Brewster 0

Omnishambles has been one of my favourite neologisms of the year. It sums up so much of what we see here at TechWeekEurope, particularly coming from government sources – and the porn blocking saga is just one example.

David Cameron’s announcement today, in taking the dubious idea of default filtering of adult content, put the brandy on the Christmas cake, then set fire to it, and threw it in British citizens’ disappointed faces. It was a complete fumble.

Cameron has promised to enforce blocking of explicit material (whatever that is) as the default option for ISPs. This will force all PC makers to provide filter options when any new PC is switched on in the UK. With this promise, Cameron has truly nailed the art of omnishambling.

Porn blocking botch job

Mistake number one was announcing policy through the Daily Mail. After a year in which the Leveson Inquiry has sought to reveal politicians’ close ties with national publications and their editors (remember Rebekah Brooks and her LOLfest with our David?)  you’d have thought Cameron would have avoided any pandering to major newspapers.

But no, instead of using the usual channels of press releases or open press conferences, the Prime Minister chose to announce the plans in the Mail – a publication that has been unerring in its pursuit of a default porn block for the past few years.

The Mail and Cameron both forgot about the crud the online paper displays on the right hand column of all its articles, of course, highlighting the gross hypocrisy of both of them. Look, here’s what was on the “column of shame” at the time of publication:

Daily Mail shame

His second major gaffe was in providing almost zero detail on the plans. There are many questions the government needs to answer – not least of which is the most basic one of all: how will these filters stop kids, who know very well how to use computers, from getting around the blocks?

Then there are the technical questions. Who will provide the filter – ISPs, PC makers, operating system producers, anti-virus companies? Have ISPs or the PC industry even been consulted? Has the government simply come up with an idea without looking into the basics of how it will work? Is this a policy shift away from what the Department of Education said earlier in the week, when it said no default blocking would be carried out at the “network level”?

Number 10 has now said there was no reversal in policy, claiming it is simply building on the DoE’s report. But a lot of people are scratching their heads over that one.

“It’s a reversal of tone, and a dangerous signal to make, as it invites the emotional and ill-informed rhetoric to be used to drive policy; something the consultation appeared to have got past,” says Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group. “But as for concrete changes, we are all guessing.”

The Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA) said it wanted more detail from the prime minister too: “We’re following up with government to understand what their expectations of ISPs actually are in this area. For us to be able help government, we need clarity and certainty.”

Nanny state nightmare

Given the way the government has announced sweeping policy changes that involve heavy use of communications technology before, it would come as no surprise if, yet again, it hasn’t carried out adequate research here.

Just look at the Communications Data Bill, widely known by critics as Snooper’s Charter, and another sign of the government’s leaning towards a nanny state. The draft bill, which will compel ISPs to store comms data on UK citizens for at least a year, ostensibly so police can catch more paedophiles and terrorists, has been lambasted for its broad, ill-informed proposals.

The Home Office has been widely criticised for fudging the facts and figures in its proposals. The cost of the thing is likely to be far higher than what the government expected, according to the committee who scrutinised the draft. The committee said the £1.8 billion figure cited by the Home Office, covering spending over 10 years, was likely to be too low, whilst the £5 to £6.2 billion benefit to the economy was “fanciful and misleading”

“This figure must be highly suspect, because it was calculated with little or no input from the CSPs [communication service providers],” the report read.David Cameron with iPad featured

Furthermore, the bill does not explain how it will help catch those using encryption, or other services that will help them easily avoid detection. And, as Jimmy Wales told me a matter of weeks ago, tech firms’ protestations are simply being ignored by Theresa May and her cohorts.

Both the Snooper’s Charter and this latest porn blocking fiasco show how the government is happy to announce major policies without looking at the right data or doing the necessary research. They also, worryingly, offer indications that this government, despite talking about how tech savvy it is ad nauseam, refuses to listen to technology firms or privacy campaigners on key issues. When it comes to policies that require significant tech expertise and investment, as well as an understanding of how much people value their privacy, that’s bad.

So this Christmas, we’re left to fret not just about increasing government surveillance, more censorship and the Coalition’s wilfull ignorance of those businesses it is relying on to improve this country’s economy. We can also be safe in the knowledge that incompetence is rife amongst those running the country.

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Thomas Brewster
Author: Thomas Brewster
Security Correspondent, TechWeekEurope
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