Website blocking and privacy : it’s all or nothing

Over the past week we’ve had the continued fall out from the Pirate Bay court ruling and Claire Perry MP’s continued calls for an opt-in content filter in the UK. The cries of ‘something must be done’ have been heard loud and clear – but is anyone thinking through what it being proposed?

Both the causes are laudable ones – tackling piracy and protecting children from explicit imagery. However, Big Brother Watch cannot support the principle of blocking content as described in either model. In both cases, there is a perception that ISPs have the ability to regulate every packet of data that pass their networks, and therefore stop people accessing certain websites.

This is a dangerously flawed interpretation of how the internet works and for it to work and have any meaningful way it requires everything we do online to be monitored. Of course, it is entirely coincidental that the Communications Capbailities Development Programme would be a step towards that.

There are those in Government who recognise this. Foreign Secretary William Hague last year stated that “It is important to distinguish between government encouraging people to make more use of existing protections as a matter of choice, and the government deciding what people can and cannot do online” and his sentiment was echoed in today’s Telegraph by Francis Maude, who warned against  “state intervention that would stifle growth and the free exchange of ideas at its heart.”

They are right. Network level blocking is not the silver bullet may have portrayed it to be. Easily avoided, it is a crude tool that carries serious risks, from blocking legitimate business content to introducing new security risks into the internet. Indeed, in a 2011 report into site blocking, Ofcom concluded:

“Circumvention of a block is a technically a relatively trivial matter irrespective of which of the techniques used. Knowledge of how site operators and end users can work around blocks is widely distributed and easily accessible on the internet. It is not technically challenging and does not require a particularly high level of skill or expertise.”

Furthermore, the White House’s top technical and cyber security experts warned that web-blocking through DNS interference (the bit of the internet that connects the address you type to the digital address of the data you want – which is how you block access to ) would create new security risks. They said:

“We must avoid creating new cyber-security risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet. Proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet through manipulation of the Domain Name System (DNS), a foundation of Internet security. Our analysis of the DNS filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cyber-security and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online.

So, why do so many people still call for a system that is easily circumvented system that creates new cyber security risks?

Beyond that, it’s important to remember blocking does not remove content from the internet, it merely makes it less easy to access through a web browser. Equally, it is much harder to circumvent software installed on a PC than network filtering but invariably the debate is focussed on the Government deciding what can and cannot be accessed. It’s also useful to note there is still no known successful implementation of network level filtering outside of China or Iran. In March 2011 Dutch ISPs abandoned their own blocking programme after evidence showed the level of material did not fall, it merely moved off websites.

Web-blocking is a crude tool that does not prevent determined users accessing content. The broader consequences risk damaging legitimate businesses and undermining cyber security while further perpetuating the myth that this is an easy technological solution to a complex problem. Ultimately the risk is that ISPs will be expected to monitor everything their customers do online to ensure they are not doing something they should not be. Indeed, it is almost inevitable certain groups will call for this when web blocking is exposed as the ineffective and easily avoided instrument it is.

Big Brother Watch believes the solution lies with greater device-level controls and law enforcement action aimed at those storing data or funding services that contravene the law. It would be unacceptable for the failiure of technically naieve policies to be used as justification for detailed monitoring of our internet use.

So, if you’re calling for network level blocking of websites, either call for the Great Firewall of Great Britain and have the state monitor everything we do online, or find a solution that actually works.