Doing the right thing

So, imagine for a moment that you have just found out about a technology that, according to the sales person, will have an immediate impact on preventing children being abused, tortured and worse. Imagine you’ve been told that it won’t require you to do a thing, that it will operate “out there” (possibly in “The Cloud”) and perform its function on your behalf without you having any need to actually do anything yourself to put the processes in play.

How much would you, personally, pay for such a technology? €1 a month? €5 a month? €10 a month?

What if it turned out that:

  1. The technology actually didn’t stop the hurt or damage to children, just made it a little harder for people who paid for access to images of that to get at it and, at best, curtails demand slightly
  2. Was relatively easily circumvented using free or low cost tools
  3. Had been found not to work in other countries where it had been made available, with innocent individuals and businesses suffering due to poor quality data existing in the processes which meant they were tagged as “offending” and were being closed off from their market (in the case of businesses) or from their legitimate personal activities (in the case of individuals).

That’s what the Irish police have asked ISPs to do with their recent requests to implement IP filtering, outlined by Digital Rights Ireland today. IP Filtering has been found be ineffective in the Netherlands, has had declining effectiveness in the UK, and doesn’t actually address the problem of the images being accessible on the Internet. In Australia a leaking of the black list revealed valid businesses that had no child porn content, with almost 50% of the list being unrelated to the target intent of controlling access to images of child pornography (thanks to for the linked to stories).

A far more effective approach is to get the images removed from the sites that are hosting them. Perhaps this is problematic and onerous. Let’s look at some statistics:

  • Of the 72 requests to remove images of child pornography made by the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation in 2010, a paltry 100% were complied with in a geological “few hours” (source: BBC report on IWF’s Annual Report)
  • Researchers in Germany working with found that the 3 active sites on the sample of watch list data they worked with were taken down within 90 minutes of requests being made to hosting companies and/or domain registrars. In each case the images had been blocked but were still on-line for up to 2 years.

So… making requests to the hosting providers tends to be effective at removing the problem at source. Indeed, a draft EU Directive is calling for exactly that approach to be taken.

Which leaves us back at the start, asking the question about how much you’d be willing to pay to have such a technology in place to block access to sites. Because a price will have to be paid in some way and in some form. On one hand, Irish telcos are not exactly awash with cash at the moment and the implementation of any blacklisting process will require some governance and resourcing (both technology and people) which will come at a price. Currently there is no proposal that the State would contribute to this cost, and the model of the Data Retention regulations would suggest that no such stipend would be forthcoming.

So the cost of web filtering would likely have to be borne by the ISP. Which would mean either higher bills or reduced investment in other areas as the money would have to be found somewhere (it is worth remembering in this context that eircom is currently trying to restructure its debts and cut costs by €92million). So, realistically, the costs will emerge somewhere on your bill. How much are you willing to pay for technology that doesn’t achieve its goals?

The other price to pay is the privacy cost.

The Garda proposal is, to my reading, an outrageous trampling of personal privacy rights while they take a lump hammer to swat a fly. In essence, they amount to a “guilty until proven innocent” position where inadvertent access will need to be explained by way of the ISP giving EVEN MORE data to the Gardaí about an individuals browsing history. As Digital Rights Ireland point out in their letter to the Data Protection Commissioner about these measures, such disclosures might actually be illegal in and of themselves under other legislation. And if your domain name can identify you as an individual there is always the potential for your personal reputation to be damaged if you are put on the blacklist in error given the text of the “stop page” message.

  • What ever happened to “Adequate, Relevant, and Not Excessive”?
  • And how bullet proof are you against malicious uploading of content to your website anyway?

It would seem that the only entity not incurring a cost in the entire equation is the Gardaí, as their letter does not outline any form of “right of reply”, any avenue for validating or correcting entries on any black list which might be created, or any form of judicial oversight or regulation of the powers which the Gardaí are taking upon themselves in this context.  Who do I contact if my business site is compromised, becomes a host for offensive content (if only for a few hours until it is spotted and removed) and is blacklisted? What steps have the Gardaí taken to ensure that they don’t mirror the Thai experience, where a blacklist introduced to control access to child pornography has experienced “scope creep” to include any criticism of the Royal family, or the Australian experience where, according to one expert:

“It seems to me as if just about anything can potentially get on the list”

Doing the right thing is very important. But equally important is doing the thing right. Internet filtering is ineffective as a tool. It is the equivalent of telling one part of a town they can’t shop in B&Q while the rest of the town sates their bricolage requirements at the “banned” store.

An analogy to the Garda proposal is this: Anyone entering certain areas of the country (“black-zones”) would be overtly tagged as probable criminals by reason of their being in that location. They might even be given a badge to wear at all times as a result. Where they are ‘just passing through’,  the probable criminal will need to provide evidence of their normal habitual movements to the authorities so they can satisfy themselves that the visit was accidental or as a result of an unexpected detour. Residents will not be told about their status as a “black-zone” and will have no ready right of appeal or opportunity to challenge the designation. Visitors will be told they are about to enter a “black-zone” that hosts criminal elements and activity by way of a large sign on the side of the road.

Would that be acceptable in Irish society?

Internet blocking is ineffective. The current proposal lacks sufficient checks and balances, and may even require ISPs and telcos to break other laws to comply. It will inevitably result in innocents being tarred as offenders. Data Protection principles (such as “Adequate, Relevant, and Not Excessive” are being blatantly ignored to implement an ineffective solution.

Far better is to shut down the shop by removing the images at source and invest time, energy, and resources into a more transparent effort to manage this issue.

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