Why the UK's mandatory opt-out censorware plan is stupid

My latest Guardian column is "There's no way to stop children viewing porn in Starbucks," a postmortem analysis of the terrible debate in the Lords last week over a proposed mandatory opt-out pornography censorship system for the UK's Internet service providers.

In order to filter out adult content on the internet, a company has to either look at all the pages on the internet and find the bad ones, or write a piece of software that can examine a page on the wire and decide, algorithmically, whether it is inappropriate for children.

Neither of these strategies are even remotely feasible. To filter content automatically and accurately would require software capable of making human judgments – working artificial intelligence, the province of science fiction.

As for human filtering: there simply aren't enough people of sound judgment in all the world to examine all the web pages that have been created and continue to be created around the clock, and determine whether they are good pages or bad pages. Even if you could marshal such a vast army of censors, they would have to attain an inhuman degree of precision and accuracy, or would be responsible for a system of censorship on a scale never before seen in the world, because they would be sitting in judgment on a medium whose scale was beyond any in human history.

Think, for a moment, of what it means to have a 99% accuracy rate when it comes to judging a medium that carries billions of publications.

Consider a hypothetical internet of a mere 20bn documents that is comprised one half "adult" content, and one half "child-safe" content. A 1% misclassification rate applied to 20bn documents means 200m documents will be misclassified. That's 100m legitimate documents that would be blocked by the government because of human error, and 100m adult documents that the filter does not touch and that any schoolkid can find.

There's no way to stop children viewing porn in Starbucks


  1. There is also no good way to keep kids from finding your playboy stash….  For the billions around the world living in extreme poverty and with no more than one room to their name, there is often no good way to keep your kids from witnessing their parents in the act….

    Somehow previous generations have survived.

    1. It is arguable that internet porn is slightly more effective at glamorizing sex than a long night in your 1 room hovel with amorous parents and/or livestock…

      1. If sex needed glamourising, the human race would have died out a long time ago.

        Once the hormones kick in. the tricky part is has always been not to go give in to temptation.

  2. To which headlines blare: CHILDREN VIEWING PORN IN STARBUCKS!

    and talkshows respond: *Is Starbucks safe for your children?!*

    1. No, but that’s because they serve bad coffee, and everything they sellis laced with sugar. Nothing to do with the internet.

  3. “Mandatory opt-out censorware???”

    So the idea is that if someone in the household would like to exercise their right to view pornography as they please, they have to… call up their provider and ask them to turn on the porno? Fill out a form?

    Surely this violates privacy as much as all the other absurd parts to it you mention.

    1. This feature is by design.

      Anybody who isn’t either selling censorware or afflicted with a room-temperature IQ knows that censorware doesn’t actually work terribly well. They also know that there are a variety of commercially available censorware packages that you can buy if you are just that scared of your precious childrens’ virgin eyes being scarred by pornography. If there were enough demand, ISPs would presumably offer it as a feature for a few extra bucks a month, as well.

      However, if your main objective is to pander to the moralists and control freaks by forcing people to sign up for the “I am objectively pro-smut and probably a pedophile” list before they can use the internet unhindered… Ah, mandatory opt-out starts to look nearly perfect, does it not?

      1. The main objective is to sell copies of the Daily Mail. If this is really put in place, they’ll start ranting about how it’s a fascist government plot.

    2. Yes, of course it does, and there don’t seem to be more than one or two politicians in the UK who have the foggiest idea of what might constitute a sensible policy for internet regulation.

      There aren’t a whole lot more who have a sensible idea about ANY sensible policy, but that’s going OT.

      I love the article, but it rather assumes that the people you’re addressing are rational and even vaguely numerate.  Sadly, the evidence does not support that assumption – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19801666 (*)

      So the best way to get policy makers to listen to you – and I hate to say this – is to get the daily mail and the sun on your side.  Talking about false positives and negatives doesn’t get you anywhere; look at the US: Bruce Schneier has been pointing out the flaws in the TSA setup for years, and their budget keeps on increasing.

      Whereas, if “The Sun” had a few headlines saying “Internet Gestapo want to ban page 3”, and the mail had a few about how the council Blockwards wants to snoop on what you read (sorry, “read”) online etc, the decision makers might actually listen.

      If rational arguments triumphed, the world wouldn’t look the way it is. Let’s accept that and spin better than the people we’re opposing.

      No more “MPAA piracy figures wildly inflated because of [long technical argument]”, let’s argue “MPAA jails grandmother for singing Happy Birthday” or whatever hyperbole works.

      (*) – Yes, I know that only addresses numeracy, not rationality. Heck, it’s a blog comment, not a PhD thesis, cut me some slack.

  4. “There’s no way to stop children viewing porn in Starbucks,”

    Not allowing children IN a Starbucks would be one solution, to many problems.

    But not a solution to the larger issue. 

  5. Good article, but I think there’s a slight mistake:
    “Kids whose parents rely on this filter will discover quickly that their kids have no trouble evading it.”
    (Paragraph 27)

    You seem to be suggesting that the *grandchildren* will evade the filter.

  6. I applaud this noble effort to cripple the internet. It’s the boldest and most reasonable attack against the the medium yet. And in time, and by the ingenuity of the geeks, the programmers, the freethinkers, and the borganism that the internet is, it shall prevail, reemerge and stronger, more resilient and more free than ever before.

    Bravo! I tip my hat to those who seek the noble course of making the internet free from censorship by forcing it into this course rather sooner than later.

    1. Sir David Steel (a member of the House of Lords): “The people who run the internet have a lot to answer for.”

      Who, what, where?

  7. It’s difficult to explain how poorly censorware works. The best I’ve come up with is “would you like your internet censored by trained rats? Computers work almost as well”.
    It would be interesting to try this as an actual experiment. Well, okay, rats can’t read. But I bet they would do better on images. And it would be a very media friendly-argument: you could take your trained rat to onto breakfast television and say “these programs are less acturate than jimbo here”, and none of the audiences eyes would glaze over.

  8. The part about this requiring humans viewing webpages is interesting. When I worked at Symantec during the late 90’s and early naughts, the company actually did employ a team of analysts who spent a large part of their time cruising websites and adding them to the parental-control database of Norton Internet Security. 

    The DB became so huge (I believe 20 maybe 50 MB) that it became a major source of support calls for NIS because on many computers, even newish ones, it could add two, five or ten minutes to boot time. Another source of friction was that it wasn’t always accurate (blocked a young-adult site called Hardcore Anime) and it was a challenge to have your site removed. 

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