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Online porn block: Legit sites to suffer from David Cameron's ignorance

Analysis Retailers will lose trade and web users will lose trust
Mon Jul 22 2013, 15:39
Could images like these be accidentally filtered by the ISP pornography filters

THE UK GOVERNMENT decision to impose automatic online pornography filtering via UK ISPs today could cause a multiplicity of issues, such as loss of trade for online retailers and a decline in trust from web users.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced in a speech earlier today that after months of negotiation the UK government has been working with four UK ISPs - Virgin Media, Talktalk, Sky and BT - to roll out of an opt-in pornography blocking system in which people will have to choose whether their internet connection will be able to access adult content.

"By the end of this year, when someone sets up a new broadband account the settings to install family friendly filters will be automatically selected," Cameron said. "If you just click 'next' or 'enter', then the filters are automatically on."

The INQUIRER spoke with online filtering security firm Webroot today, which discussed the technology behind the filtering processes involved in blocking pornographic imagery in more detail, including how this system could potentially cause problems across retail commerce as well as unanticipated impacts on society.

Webroot's technology works using millions of "crawlers" that relentlessly scour the web looking for new porn websites via a hybrid system of machine learning and human classification, which catalogues domains.

The web filtering firm has catalogued over 310 million domains that are scored, classified and sorted into around 83 categories, 14 languages and over 550 million IP addresses to look for dangerous sites, such as phishing portals as well as pornography.

The firm is constantly working with a huge amount of data in various databases with regard to the content of each URL address on the web.

"The ideal is to do [it] with a high degree of accuracy; that's the key thing," Webroot's enterprise product marketing manager George Anderson said.

"We've scored and researched over 8.7 billion URLs for the time we've been going, obviously some of those you have to put in front of a human person, as machines learning things can't work out everything and they have to make a decision whether that's 'porn' or not."

Anderson detailed the technology that enables Webroot to decipher the difference between pornographic and non-pornographic imagery online.

This technology analyses the amount of flesh tone that is in an image and tries to classify it according to the amount of nudity.

The filters create a hashed, unique value for each pornographic image so if the picture is seen in internet traffic it is automatically blocked.

"It's like a fingerprint," Anderson said. "Creating fingerprints for all that material and so if [the filter] recognises it, it blocks it."

However, he admitted that even though this technology has been running online for some time now, there are "some grey areas" with regard to underwear or swimsuit websites with bikini images, for example.

Anderson said that ISPs will be using the same or similar sorts of systems in order for their porn filtering systems to operate. "[The ISPs] will have to approach us or some other firm who offer these sorts of services, but they probably already have that in place," Anderson added.

However, as is common knowledge, Anderson also noted that these filtering systems aren't by any means faultless, and there are always going to be misclassifications somewhere down the web filtering line.

"None of these systems are perfect and if you're an underwear site that's pretty close [to a porn site] and you get blocked because of this ban, that's going to cause issues," Anderson said.

"Apart from the fact you're going to lose trade, how quickly and how you're going to get compensated for that lost trade and who's going to pay that compensation. Is it going to be the government? I very much doubt it."

Another potential factor to consider in the event of a glitch is how quickly an online retailer could get the block lifted. Anderson advised that this is usually fairly rapidly, but this would not be the case if the four ISPs do not use one common system.

"If [the ISPs] are all using separate [filtering] systems then the retailer will have to go to each separate ISP to unblock their site," he said. "I don't think that's been sorted through. I think there are some complications there and it's something that really has to be sorted out."

He also pointed at some potential "central querying" software that might be needed to search all ISPs.

Despite the possible issues that could arise using this method, Anderson did understand why the government had chosen to go through the ISP, as it is simpler to do at this level because all the traffic has to go through the ISP.

"You'll have a more effective system at ISP level [...] but the negative side of it is that there is far more interference in what you're doing on the internet."

Anderson said government enforced web filtering could also lead to mistrust from web users regarding the legalities of filtering everything you search for online, and he questioned what impact this could have on society.

"In effect, what it does mean that every single web request made by anyone in the UK is going to be filtered, full stop?" he asked. "If you have government filtering every request, there's a lot of opening to abuse as well. At that level, its concerning. We've had enough concern with governments and privacy with PRISM."

"I think it becomes too much about the state being involved in people's personal lives; that's the risk," he said. µ

 

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