Parental controls are nothing new they have existed for many years and no matter which broadband provider you use there are options such as OpenDNS (the name probably attracting the more techie people) and Norton ConnectSafe which is more likely to chosen by the average family worried about how to control content on all the devices in their home.
The last year has seen the pressure building on the major broadband providers to provide solutions and as 2014 progresses existing customers will all be contacted to be guided through the process of turning off or on the controls. In theory new customers for the providers offering a network based solution now, BT, Sky and TalkTalk should be guided to the decision making point during sign-up or when first using the connection, in theory with the various filtering boxes ticked as on, so if someone blindly clicks OK they have the filtering.
The result is that while the UK has around 23,000,000 fixed line broadband connections, the number who have engaged with the new filters is a lot smaller. Thus it is too earlier to present reliable evidence on the levels of over blocking, and that is leading to the seemingly diametrically opposed camps claiming over blocking is not a problem or that it will cause the end of the free world. Reality is probably in the middle, but the unintended consequences of over blocking could be very serious.
The risks of inadvertently blocking websites has been known about for years, as mobile operators have had various 18+ systems for the mobile networks, though this has not stopped the rise of sexting amongst teenagers where one assumes parents have not turned off this blocking.
So it is both nice to see some attention being made of over blocking, but it is also worrying when you read more. It sounds like a very old school working group is to be set-up to create a whitelist (i.e. a list of safe sites) that will be submitted to the broadband providers. The impression is that this list is mainly to do with charities and education websites rather than the much wider situation.
The danger of over blocking a website that reaches out to those contemplating suicide and offers help to resolve what is driving these thoughts through someones head is very clear and imagine the outcry if every a teenagers or an adults computer was found after a suicide and their browsing history showed sites had been blocked and someone who may already feel cut off and unable to express themselves has lost that final outreach opportunity.
In the face of such cold hard reality worries about an e-commerce website, or some other blog being inadvertently blocked seem minor, but if you are an online operation that seems customer visits tail off by perhaps 25% and profits drop it may not even be obvious you are blocked without some swift detective work. In the online world reputation is everything, imagine a respected online blog that is blocked and flagged as featuring ‘drugs and criminal skills’. Are the blocking engines excused from the concept of slander and who is responsible, is it the broadband provider or the third party that maintains the lists?
In the world of just 15 years ago, a week taken to resolve a business issue was reasonable, but not a website blocked or broken for 30 minutes at the wrong time can be the difference between business failure or success.
Some say the UK is sleep walking towards a censorship society and it would be very interesting to see how other countries are viewing the ‘UK firewall’ as we have seen it mentioned sometimes. The fact that we are setting up committees and working groups only now to look into the very issues people have warned about since blocking entered the political agenda suggests that this more about being seen to do something, rather than actually doing the right thing.
Parents (which is apparently just 1 in 3 households) needed help in either setting up controls, or education on what options were available especially in households where they only have an Intenet connection for the children. A difficult concept for many reading this blog to comprehend probably, but while for many in the tech industry the Internet is their whole day (working and leisure) for millions the Internet is simply an extension of the cash-point and a 21st century bill payment machine.
Alas the whole idea of education and helping parents seems to have been skipped, the providers are embarking on a £25m education programme, but one cannot help but wonder if that had been down 18 months ago, would those parents who wanted to block inappropriate content not have been a lot better informed and aware of what they can do.
As part of writing this blog, we played around with the controls for one of the big providers and it would appear that if a category is blocked and you goto the standard HTTP version of the site you get a blocked message, but confusingly for the general public HTTPS simply times out and no warning of blocking is given to the end-user. As more websites transition to using secure connections for the whole site as a response to security concerns it is likely that confusion over whether a site is blocked or just broken may increase.
A final thought in a long blog entry, brand new websites i.e. someone has registered a new domain and uploaded some content. How long is the timeframe from the site being created to it being categorised? If this is measured in a period of months, then all the blocking is likely to do is lead to an underground system of URL exchanges as teenagers tell each other about the sites that are not blocked yet.