Censorship, Surveillance & Mass Infantilization by Paul Whittaker
Once upon a time we could rely on the Tories to lambast any suspicious examples of the nanny-state as quickly as they could identify them, but now, at the behest of the Daily-Mail they have concocted the most definitively nanny-state concept of all time: a system to filter the internet in order to protect the children (along with everyone else) from internet pornography.
In the wake of the Snowden leaks it is surprising how little concern and scrutiny David Cameron & Claire Perry’s attempt to install a massive censorship and surveillance program has attracted. Another piece of the puzzle which has received little comment is that this is not Cameron’s first attempt to tame the unruly internet. As well as the (rather flimsy) blockade on torrent sites there was an abortive attempt back in 2011 after the widespread rioting triggered by the police murder of Mark Duggan.
At the time Cameron was trying to figure out how to stop people from using Twitter and BBM to organize protests [i]. These plans were never pursued as doing so might have risked interrupting the amnesiac fugue into which media attention to the whole unpleasant business quickly subsided, however the more workable elements of the original program appear to have been recycled for use in the Porn Wall, via The stated intentions of the two programs differs greatly but the proposed implementation is essentially the same.
Given how much emphasis the Tory’s are putting on this being about porno you might be surprised to learn that pornography is only one of many things the Great Wall of Vagina is likely to be set to censor. The Open Rights Group proposes the following list based on the existing optional filtering systems currently available from a number of ISP’s [ii].
extremist and terrorist related content
anorexia and eating disorder websites
suicide related websites
web blocking circumvention tools
Note how loosely defined many of the categories are and how devilishly difficult it is to find any specific definition of what they mean in this context, does “violent material” for example include the trailer for Elysium? Does it include The News at 10? Other obvious red flags are “web forums” and the deliciously nebulous “esoteric material,” as much as I’d love it if this meant Crowley’s Book of Lies or The Thunder, Perfect Mind, it probably just means “anything our list can’t categorize as safe”. The darker alternative is that it might even be a euphemism for encrypted data, which has always been a major allergy for anyone as interested in other people’s business as our government is, inspite of the fact that the commercial success of Web 2.0 is founded on the ability of SSL to keep our financial details secret.
Chinese Involvement and the Surveillance Side of the Program
The model for Cameron’s internet filter appears to be TalkTalk’s Homesafe service, which is provided to them by the Chinese company Huawei. Huawei are an interesting lot, primarily a mobile handset manufacturer attempting to break into the market for Android hardware. They have received a lot of funding from the Chinese government and US security officials have raised concerns that their hardware is designed to allow the Chinese government/PLA to access it, while the UK Intelligence and Security Committee are concerned “as to whether Huawei’s intentions are strictly commercial or are more political.” (The companies founder seems to have learned his trade as an army engineer in the eighties). Interestingly Homesafe Is designed so that even when filtering is turned off completely all of the traffic is routed through Huawei’s servers anyway [iii].
The Tories considered these concerns relevant when Huawei tried to acquire Marconi in 2005, but when it comes to their citizens personal security they appear to be in much less of a state of panic [iv]. It will be interesting to see how much Huawei have to do with the emerging Porn Wall. Even if it doesn’t turn in to a way to launder massive swathes of our meta-data back to our own spooks via the Chinese intelligence services (you saw Prism right?), Hadrian’s Firewall seems likely to directly incorporate elements designed by the Chinese for the Great Firewall of China, and will almost certainly include ways of syphoning large amounts of data to various interested parties, and will be as much an instrument of surveillance as it is an instrument of censorship.
One of the interesting things which came to light as a result of the Arab Spring was the extent to which the filtering systems put in place by the fallen regimens were running software provided and supported by companies such as the McAfee owned Secure Web who operated Tunisia’s SmartFilter software. In many cases there is little difference between the software such companies provide to families and companies here and that which they licence to oppressive regimes at home and abroad.
Nudge Nudge, Wank Wank
Very simply if you choose to opt out of being censored your name goes on a list. Even if we assume that this won’t form the basis of the passenger list for the cattle trucks which come to take us away to the FEMA camps it does generate yet another confidential data-set consisting of self identified perverts to be lost, hacked or just sold to the highest bidder at the first opportunity.
The stigmatization made implicit by the emphasis placed on pornography is designed to subtly discourage people from opting out of the censorship side of the program (the surveillance aspect will no doubt be harder to bypass for those without access to encrypted proxies [v]). This is all part of a breakthrough field of social control known as “Nudge Theory”, which having cut it’s teeth on blandly innocuous projects (such as getting more people to have loft insulation put in [vi]) is now eager to try it’s hand at more overtly dystopian projects. Perhaps Cameron thinks that if they come for the wankers first no one will speak out in case everyone thinks they’re a wanker too. (apologies Pastor Niemöller).
Where’s the Legislation?
Actually there is no legislation on this, Cameron has decided that the most democratic thing to do would be to make a deal with the Internet Service Providers directly (specifically BT, Sky, Virgin and TalkTalk) rather than going to the bother of trying to get a bill passed in parliament [vii], all of which fits well with current right-wing ideology on regulating businesses (There is a rather unfortunate irony that something which fundamentally reduces peoples individual freedom should be brought about with such strong ethical regard for corporate freedom). Sidestepping the legislative process also fits well with the “libertarian paternalism” hogwash which the Nudge Theorists champion.
The other great advantage of dealing with the ISP’s directly rather than using the cumbersome and antiquated method of parliamentary legislation is that it neatly solves the transparency issue. If this had needed to go through parliament the contents of the bill would be a matter of public record, the exact details of the deals reached with the ISP’s are much harder to come by, indeed it is possible that each of the ISP’s will implement their own individual solution, neatly quadrupling the amount of footwork necessary for anyone wanting to figure out how the system works.
More Sensible Alternatives
Assuming that we are talking about protecting the children and not an attempt at bringing in a new narrower meshed scapegoat dragnet designed to sift for perverts in general alongside the traditional staples of paedophiles and terrorists perhaps we can find a more sensible approach. My suggestion would be for the government to commission an open-source, multi-platform piece of software which is controlled and configured by the parents/users themselves rather than serving as a data conduit back to China. The software would essentially be no different from any of the competitors on the market except that it would be available to everyone for free, and being open-source it could be checked for weaknesses and suspicious behaviour by anyone and everyone concerned. Obviously this works better from a transparency point of view than it does as an intelligence laundering scam so it’s unlikely to appeal to a state which seems hell bent on having it’s behaviour mimic the delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic, but as long as the product was simple to install and set-up and was well promoted in the media and by service providers (throw in a disk in the HomeHub box etc) it would be just as good at protecting the children without coming across as the government having a creepy obsession with the exact porno preferences of the average pervert on the street (perhaps they can’t think of anything kinky enough to fire their own jaded libido’s by themselves and need to crowd source their next image search?). The key point in any case is maintaining an up to date block-list rather than the software itself, and in relation to the block-list transparency is vital, it must be possible for us to review that it is only being used for the stated purpose and that our political and philosophical horizons are not being moulded to nudge us in a more Cameronite direction.
Ultimately though any technical solution is bound to fail. The idea that Claire Perry and David Cameron are as tech savy as the average 12 year old is distinctly unrealistic. In any case even if a hypothetical 100% watertight filter could be established, children have been coming across porn since before the internet and probably before VHS defeated Betamax. The only comprehensive solution lies in giving children the maturity to contextualise what they are exposed to, wherever it comes from, rather than the mass infantilization of society as a whole.
v https://www.torproject.org/ (TOR is effective against the current Torrent blockade so should hopefully also circumvent all aspects of a more complete censorship regime. The Chinese are somewhat successful at interfering with their own citizens use of the system but doing so requires a large scale active cyber-policing operation rather a passive block-list. A block-list could potentially stop you downloading the software (ORG’s list does include “web blocking circumvention tools” – but the browser is written to be portable (no installation, just unzip) which means it can be run from, and distributed on, a USB flash drive or other portable media.
vii http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23401076 (See analysis section.)