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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 www.example.com ) 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.

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in CCDP, Civil Liberties, Internet freedom, Mastering the Internet, Surveillance, Technology, Web blocking

12 Responses to Website blocking and privacy : it’s all or nothing

  1. Ken

    Website-blocking is now commonplace all over Europe, including DNS-level blocking.

    You need to suggest a workable alternative that protects legitimate property rights.

    • Anonymous

      No. We need to reconsider how copyright works in the 21st centary, oherwise we will have another ‘red flag act’ (of 1865) on our hands, look it up!

      “Those who never learn history are doomed to repeat it, forever.” – George Santayana.

  2. John Galt

    Where I live in Malaysia, the government has instituted website blocking of Pirate Bay and it is trivial to bypass. It was done to generate PR and to appease the US Government, nothing more.

    All we do is change our Telecom Malaysia addresses to use an Open DNS server such as Google (8.8.8.8 & 8.8.8.4) and the block is bypassed.

    It would be harder to bypass it if they had also blocked traffic to non-Telecom Malaysia DNS Servers, but in that case it is relatively trivial to setup you own DNS server and once again the block is bypassed.

    To be more honest I would not be worried about these kind of technical measures because the internet is filled with smart people who can design mechanisms to bypass these barriers.

    A more worrying development would be along the lines of “The Great Firewall of China” and its Australian counterpart.

    Best to nip these things in the bud while you can though.

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  4. Peter Cranstone

    It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The HTTP protocol is extensible and it would be straightforward to design a browser add on that allows you to control every aspect of your online privacy. Check out U.S. Patent No. 7,873,710 and 8,156,206 to see how such a solution can be constructed.

  5. Tober Reilly

    I don’t want to live in a world or society that has been reduced to a Stepford or Disneyesque under 12′s suitability inspection. We have absolved parents of the responsibility to feed their children, discipline their children, provide a roof over the heads of their children or even raise them to be contributing and well balanced adults. Do we now absolve them of the responsibility to protect them when they are too lazy to activate parental controls? I am a grown adult and providing I act within the law, I absolutely expect to have freedom of choice to do as I please.

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  7. Alastair McGowan

    New social networks such as Diaspora and Appleseed as two examples show how far ahead privacy innovation is from where the Government is now proposing legislation. these new social networks are fully distributed, functioning very much like peer-to-peer networks by using a protocol program in order to facilitate networks that have scalability and proxies built in. If proscribed content moves off websites into these methods it will not only be driven underground but it will push forward consumers use of these open dynamic social networks. Government will then have a near impossible task of monitoring anything given the highly proxied nature of distributed networks. Web 3.0 will be a sphere in which users and highly privacy controlled protocols communicate with each other openly but directly and securely. In terms of privacy and as an internet citizen I welcome anything that would result in prevention of Government snooping and control, even if it does appear in the short-term to be a form of control. But the proposed opt-in blocking will be bad news for protection of vulnerable people and protection of all of us from crime if it drives users into more open networks. Either way the government seems determined to drive the internet underground, really they need to think again about CCDP, and the unintended consequences of any proposed child protection controls.

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  10. neil cole

    Having opted to switch off censorship filters, it wont be long before the government demands to know why you chose to opt out. And there will be a penalty for not answering……. and so it goes on.
    I cannot think of a worse scenario – a government of any persuasion telling me what I can and cant browse on a machine that gives me access to veiws, opions, art, politics etc from billions of people and organizations from around this planet.

  11. nilo

    It is the responsibility of the individual and their responsibility alone. Not the hysterical revenging’s of just a few people when some outrage occurs whatever that may be so as to hold to account a entire nation of millions as mad, bad, and to brand everyone the same and so to introduce whatever registration in law they wish. This is totalitarianism

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