Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Pirates in an adventure with pornographers


Aside from the election results in London and elsewhere, there have been a couple of other interesting news stories this week. The first is the injunction granted by the High Court ordering a group of ISPs to block access to The Pirate Bay. The second is speculation that the government may yet be considering forcing ISPs to block pornography by default, with customers having to explicitly opt out of filtering if they don’t want it.

Those two stories aren’t directly related, other than by coincidence, but the second is supposedly linked to the election results. Apparently, the government thinks it needs to do more to show that they’re “on the side of families rather than ‘irresponsible’ businesses“, and with Labour coming out in favour of compulsory filtering and the Dail Mail claiming that “two thirds of the public are backing the Daily Mail’s campaign for an automatic block on online porn” there’s a feeling in some circles that this is a popular move that the government should support too.

The problem with that conclusion is that it isn’t actually popular at all. The Daily Mail took its figures from a recent YouGov poll carried out for the Sunday Times, but failed to report what the poll actually found. You can see the true results by following the previous link, but here’s the question which was asked:

Some people have suggested that Internet Service Providers should have to offer a service that filters internet sites and automatically block pornographic sites from people’s home internet service. Would you support or oppose this idea?

The responses to that question were:
Support, 66%;
Oppose, 22%;
Don’t know, 12%.

Now, on the face of it, that does seem to support the Mail’s assertion. But note that it isn’t asking whether such filtering should be on by default, it’s merely about whether people think ISPs should offer the service to those who want it. The next question makes that clear:

Some people think that customers should have to choose to have their internet service filtered (an opt-in service), other people think that internet services should all be filtered unless customers ask for their service to be unfiltered (an opt-out service)

The responses to that question were:
Opt-in (someones internet service should only be filtered if they ask for it), 57%;
Opt-out (people’s internet service should be filtered unless they ask for it not to be), 38%;
Don’t know, 8%.

That’s a big difference. Only 38% of people support filtering by default, and there’s a clear majority opposed to it. That populist position suddenly doesn’t look so popular after all.

(Kudos, by the way, to YouGov for getting their terminology right. Choosing not to be filtered isn’t “opting in” to porn, it’s opting out of filtering. There are plenty of other reasons, besides porn, why people might prefer an unfiltered Internet connection.)

Rather embarrassingly for the Mail, the fact that they misrepresented the poll has now become widely known. But, rather than admit they were wrong, they’ve simply deleted the web page where they originally made the claim (although they left lots of links and references to it in place on other pages).

Moving away from porn for a moment, what about The Pirate Bay? Well, one effect of the block is that traffic to the site has rocketed. And alternate sites have sprung up like mushrooms, enabling anyone affected by the block to get around it with minimal effort. That the block doesn’t really work is common knowledge. As columnist Vicki Woods put it in the Telegraph,

Virgin Media blocked Pirate Bay yesterday. A friend of the family rang up and said: “Took me 15 minutes to get in.”

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that blocking porn is likely to be just as unreliable. Of course, some of the measures taken to defeat the TPB block (such as the proliferation of mirror sites) won’t work for most porn sites. But, on the other hand, there are vastly more porn websites than torrent tracker sites, and they come and go on a daily basis. Any filtering, to be effective, needs to keep on top of them all the time. That’s going to cost money, and the only place that money can come from is the ISPs’ customers.

One of the reasons that the government originally gave for not proceeding with plans for compulsory filtering by default was that it would be an unjustified infringement of civil liberties. Now, I’m all in favour of liberty, and I do agree with that position. But I also have to admit that it isn’t necessarily good politics, especially when faced by the incessant demands of the “Something must be done” lobbyists (and even more so when a Conservative MP calls civil liberties “empty phrases”).

However, the opinion polls, and the Pirate Bay blocking failure, offer a much more palatable response. When asked why the government isn’t backing compulsory filtering, any minister or spokesman can simply say “Because it doesn’t work, and most people don’t want it”. And then point out that Labour, by contrast, wants to do the unpopular and the impossible. Making the right decision and getting in a dig at the opposition while you’re at it; that’s how to kill two political birds with only one stone. I just hope that the PM and his advisers are up for it.