Will ISP ‘Child Protection’ Website Filtering Hit File-Sharing Sites?

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Today, UK media regulators launched ParentPort, a website which will allow parents to complain more easily about TV shows, adverts, products and Internet sites which they believe are inappropriate for their children. As part of the deal four leading ISPs will offer a porn-filtering service when new customers sign-up. But will file-sharing sites be censored too?

There can be little doubt that the architects of the ParentPort website have the best interests of children, the most important and vulnerable people in our society, at heart. That can only be a good thing – after all, we’ve all seen things online that we wished we could unsee. As adults, however, we hopefully have the experience to deal with the fallout.

But censorship is a thorny issue, especially when it is entrusted to faceless organizations who simply refuse to be held accountable.

As part of the ParentPort initiative, four leading UK ISPs – BT, Talk Talk, Virgin and Sky – have agreed to ask all new customers on sign-up whether they want explicit material viewable on their connections. Those who decline will face an “inappropriate image” blackout. This censorship, opted for by account holders and facilitated by the ISPs, will be carried out by systems already in place at the service providers.

Systems such as TalkTalk HomeSafe and Virgin Media Security Parental Control already offer subscribers the chance to block a range of sites, but the mandatory requirement to go through the process on sign-up is new. Since March 2011, BT has been offering its Family Protection filtering solution as part of its initial install process and has promised to remind its subscribers on a yearly basis that the service exists and can be activated.

But these systems don’t just censor adult content, they block a wide range of other sites including gambling and file-sharing sites, and its inevitable that some click happy parents will happily trust their ISP’s system to do a good job of blocking stuff they select.

Unfortunately, though, that faith will be completely blind. The blocklists used by the ISPs and other network operators (but not maintained by them) are unavailable for public scrutiny. We’ve asked for them on a number of occasions from numerous places and no one will hand them over. We don’t know for sure what the people behind them are so scared of, but we suspect it’s criticism.

So, considering the proprietary nature of these lists, how are we to know when mission creep sets in? How are we to know when someone, somewhere, decides that because a file-sharing search engine lists adult material, it should therefore be added not only to the file-sharing censorship list, but to the pornography list too?

Think that can’t happen? Think again.

As illustrated by our earlier article on the issue, if a customer decides to select the file-sharing category using TalkTalk’s system, they will no longer be able to access TorrentFreak, despite us being strictly a news source. The article you are reading now, which features the completely well-intended work of the ParentPort website, would be blocked, not because it carries pornography, but for a completely separate reason.

And consider this. According to the Daily Mail the ParentPort website and ISP filtering is just part of the overall initiative. Shops selling “overly-sexual clothes” such as “padded bikinis for seven-year-olds” and “billboards plastered with images of scantily-clad models” will also face restrictions

“There is growing concern about the impact on Britain’s children of adult images on the internet,” says the Mail.

Well let’s hope that future complainers to ParentPort concerned about their 8-year-olds on the Internet don’t take exception to selection of stories shown below taken from today’s Mail Online frontpage, or the faceless censors might get all click happy. Trust us, getting on these lists is easy, getting off is almost impossible.

DailyMail

Let’s protect our children and give them all the support in the world, but let’s do it in a transparent way that is open for discussion and improvement, devoid of the arbitrary decisions of the unaccountable. If parents are going to be encouraged to control what their kids do online, let them do it from an educated position.

When they choose to block a category of sites, show them the consequences of their decision. At least they won’t be surprised when the Daily Mail won’t load.

Or when their kids show them how to access it again.

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