Procrastination, thy Name is Blocked!

Last week I spent far more time than is healthy amusing myself with the Open Rights GroupBlocked’ website. Blocked originally allowed you to search for domain names to see if they were blacklisted by any ISP filters. Recently, ORG has updated the tool to allow you to search by keywords and categories. Now we can all see how absurd these filters are!

Before I continue, I’m not saying that all filtering is absurd. Restricting access to inappropriate websites for children is prudent and something I support. When used in conjunction with actively monitoring a child’s internet use it can help shield children from pornography, violent content and the unending terror of Nigel Farage gurning like a sexually-excited gorilla in every fucking photograph.

The Wide, Wide Web

However, there is a small problem. The Internet is huge. There is a reason why despite numerous attempts, the MPAA, RIAA and similar groups are unable to stop piracy. Take down one site and its users migrate to another. Perhaps they could consider expending fewer resources on these largely futile endeavours and instead improve ease of cost-effective access to content? Undoubtedly a stupid idea, and I apologise for my digression.

The point is that it isn’t easy to find all the contentious content on the Internet. Most of us have heard of Pornhub – mostly due to the endless self-loving parade of viewer statistics on which the Mirror bases entire articles when it doesn’t have a sex robot story to report – and there are probably several others that come to mind. That isn’t all of them, though, not by a long shot! Pornography accounts for roughly 4% of websites. No matter how many you know, there will be a lot more out there. More importantly, however, is the fact that since that figure is only 4%, the total number of sites is ma-hoo-sive!

One Billion Websites (in a Dr Evil Voice)

Figures guesstimate the total number of websites surpassed one billion in 2014. That would make 40,000,000 pornographic websites. Yeesh! Understandably, when it comes to applying filters, there isn’t a whole lot of human intervention. Most of the filter lists are generated automatically by scripts and algorithms. Some sites are filtered because the previous domain holder had some naughtiness on there.

The banhammer isn’t only wielded against smut. There is a disturbingly puritanical viewpoint with some of these filters. Sites featuring alcohol, for example, are blocked, including those that do not sell booze. Given that primetime soap operas are centred around pubs, I’m at a loss as to how a picture of a vineyard is more damaging to a child’s mind than watching Zack Dingle down a pint while watching a fight in the Woolpack. Interested in the Campaign for Real Ale? You ain’t seeing shit with a filter turned on!

Consequently, many currently perfectly innocent sites are being filtered.

Won’t Somebody Rid Me of These Turbulent Florists?

For example, while playing with Blocked I discovered 249 websites are filtered using the keyword ‘florist’. On investigation of a small sample of these, astonishingly I discovered most are, in fact, florists. Seven babysitters have fallen foul of the filter Gods, while ‘carers’, ‘caring’, ‘gardeners’, ‘landscaping’ and other such terms also return small business websites that are being filtered. For those who enjoy a little kink, the term ‘CBT’ returns 75 blocks (ignoring sites that are not obviously smutty). Some of these sites are indeed related to the fine art of inflicting pain upon a man’s twig and giggleberries. Others, however, are Cognitive Behavioural Therapists.

On the one hand, this is mildly amusing. Seeing a babysitting service blocked for no plausible reason (other than having ‘Dragon’ in the name?) is truly comedic. TalkTalk, who catalogue filtered sites even have an accountant listed under ‘alcohol’ and a landscape gardener listed as ‘porn’. The same fate befell a Warhammer collector whose personal blog is listed by Sky as pornographic. I visited the blog and found no smut. BT have even blocked TED Talks on its strict list. Heaven forbid young people seek out educational videos!

How’s Business When You’re Blocked?

On the other hand, this is not so funny. If you’re a small business like that accountant or landscape gardener, you might have absolutely no knowledge that your site has been blacklisted. Given that many of these sites are local businesses with limited customer bases, having some of your potential clients stopped from even clicking on your website could be damaging. Worse still, if a customer puts faith in the filter, erroneously assuming a human being has catalogued it, they might conclude your site is a scam. That babysitter for example; if you have no reason to think the filters are wrong, what conclusions might you draw about a blacklisted babysitter?

These filters could have even darker repercussions. The keyword ‘stress’ returns a list of 347 websites filtered by ISPs. Many of these are support or counselling services. Indeed, search for terms such as ‘drugs’, ‘suicide’, ‘depression’ and ‘addiction’ and a staggering number of support services, including those aimed at teenagers, are filtered. It seems to me that if the goal is to protect vulnerable young people, we should not be blocking support services!

Why Does This Matter? I Don’t Use Filters!

You might not but around two million households do and let us not forget that mobile phone companies filter content on data connections by default. More importantly is the fact that there are continued calls for more web restrictions. Prior to the 2017 General Election, Buzzfeed reported that Conservative MPs wanted to assert greater control over the Internet. Barely a month goes by without somebody pointing to objectionable content or behaviour online and wanting legislation to crack down on it.

However, when our current system is not fit for purpose, what good will come of implementing even more controls? Should we not focus on getting this system right first? If a government driven by moral-panic ploughs ahead with the same laissez-faire attitude as is currently being exhibited, we can expect more innocent sites blocked, less freedom of speech and potential consequences for both vulnerable people and businesses. It isn’t acceptable.

And Why Don’t Some People Use Filters?

Another problem with crap filtering is you’re encouraged to turn it off! If I could turn on a light filter to stop me from inadvertently clicking through to a known purveyor of drive-by malware, I would. However, I don’t and rely on my security software to stop me. I don’t want my connection filtered by some overly paranoid gadget that is going to prevent me from visiting harmless websites.

When it comes to the world of computers, ease of use is crucial. The average non-tech savvy user will quickly ditch anything that becomes a fucking chore to live with. Someone who might want to use filters, whether to protect their kids, grandkids, or uncle with a disturbing interest in pineapples, could easily be encouraged to ditch the filters and seek an alternative option if they’re repeatedly blocked from accessing harmless content. They might, for a time, switch it on and off as needed but eventually, it will be turned off and it will stay off.

One final thought; this site isn’t on any blocked list. I swear liberally, uploaded a screenplay about a girl who self-harmed and have written reviews of movies where webcam performers are sliced up, people have sex with corpses, are nothing but an excuse to showcase boobs and feature cannibalism and FGM references! No block for me! Does that not seem slightly amiss?