Monday, 23 April 2012

Internet Porn Filtering

11th February 2011

Dear Ms Perry,

I posted this text on your campaigns blog, as a comment on your internet pornography campaign (hence the references to Darren and Rowen).  I am copying it to you by email because your blog software strips out newlines - I hope the text with paragraphs intact will be easier to read.

Best wishes,

James N Kennett,
Worcester, UK.

Regarding your article on, I am sorry that you feel you have been "ridiculed for raising this issue", or "barraged with information as to why the internet should be treated differently".  I hope my comments do not stoop to ridicule, and are not so long as to constitute a barrage.  However, you are proposing significant changes to a £3 billion sector of the economy that serves millions of people, and so I hope my page of text is not too long to consider.  Although you say objections to your proposals are of three kinds, I am offering a fourth: that the proposals will not work very well, and the "porn filter" will end up being switched off even by responsible parents.  With regard to Rowen's comments, I don't much care for the "human right to access porn" argument either.  However, it would be a pity if this debate falls into the trap of "male versus female", because I am sure most fathers share Rowen's concerns about the online safety of their children.

If it were possible to create a perfect porn filter, it would definitely be a Good Thing; unfortunately, however, no such device exists.

I had the same experience as Darren with a 3G mobile Internet service blocking innocuous Web sites.  The problem with your proposals is that the filtering service will make the Web unusable because of false positive "porn sites"; yet it will not adequately protect children because it will have too many false negatives: even if 99% of porn is successfully blocked, millions of items of pornography will remain unblocked.  With or without the filter, it will never be completely "safe" to leave a young child unsupervised with a Web browser.

Personally, I do not care if the proposals are implemented, because I will immediately opt in to the full Internet; and so will many parents, when they hear for the umpteenth time "Mum, I need to finish my homework in the next 20 minutes and the Web site I need is blocked".

The ISPs will be pleased to cooperate with your proposals: asking them to sell us fig leaves is an irresistible business proposition.  The fact that many of the fig leaves will be in the wrong places will not worry them too much, as long as consumers are willing to pay, and - the biggest fig leaf of all - the ISPs are seen to be "thinking of the children".

I think the basic problem is threefold.  Firstly, billions of Web pages are provided by hundreds of millions of individuals and corporations in more than a hundred jurisdictions, and these pages are changing minute by minute as content is added, modified, moved or deleted; this method of provision and management is quite different from that of television channels, even if we choose to watch both media on the same screen.  The problem of inappropriate content is unfortunately inherent in the Internet itself.  This means that there really is no alternative to adequate parental supervision.  That is the second problem with the proposal: it is trying to provide a technical fix to what is really a social problem.

You may insist that an internet service provider is a kind of content provider, rather than a "pipe"; but in technical terms an ISP does indeed provide a pipe: the apparent contradiction arises because the issues that you raise are not entirely technical, but are also social.

The third problem is that the Internet is not just the World Wide Web.  Other services run on the Internet, most notably peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.  Teenagers are among the most prolific users of file-sharing networks, because they can find free music and films there.  Unfortunately, there is also a huge abundance of porn.  None of the advocates of filtering, in newspapers, discussion boards or even Mumsnet, mention Internet services other than the Web.  Perhaps this is because children know more about the Internet than their parents, and their desire for free music gives them an economic incentive to hide their file-sharing activity from their parents: after all, parents might disapprove of "copyright theft", or be freaked out by the pornographic material listed alongside the music.  If, when the ISPs were showing you their range of highly effective fig leaves, they neglected to mention the significance of file-sharing networks and the nature of much of their content, then shame on them.

It would be possible for ISPs to block file-sharing services completely, but ISPs' customers really do want to use these services: they are one of the most popular types of Internet use.  Therefore ISPs have an economic motive not to block these services, and that motive has nothing to do with porn.  Children too have an economic motive for resisting or bypassing any block, and again that motive (free music and films) has nothing to do with porn.  Asking ISPs to block file-sharing services is therefore unlikely to be effective.

Asking ISPs to filter out the porn on file-sharing services - apart from any technical difficulties - is problematic.  If they filter out pornographic material, copyright owners will be legally entitled to ask why they cannot also filter out copyright material.  But if the ISPs do filter copyright material, they will lose their customers.  So the only solution that does not incur severe economic penalties for the ISPs is to leave the file-sharing services unfiltered and unblocked.

The comparison with the filtering of child pornography by the IWF is misguided in at least two ways.  Firstly, the number of child pornography sites on the web is comparatively small, at least in part because most jurisdictions share our views on the subject and will take such material down and prosecute offenders.  Adult and extreme pornography is far more widespread and is therefore a much more difficult target.  Secondly, I suspect but cannot confirm that child pornography is widespread on file-sharing networks, because these appear to be totally unregulated.  I cannot confirm this, not only because I do not wish to go looking for such material, but also because the law makes it clear that private "research" of this type is a crime.  Therefore one must rely on the responsible authorities, i.e. the IWF and CEOP, to keep us informed on the matter; but on the contrary, they would much rather keep quiet about the subject while telling us what a very good job they are doing.

The strong economic incentives in favour of file-sharing are the reason that the legal measures taken to suppress it have not been particularly successful.  As one service is closed down, another arises that uses slightly different methods so that it evades the restrictions imposed by statute or case law.  The Digital Economy Act 2010, yet to be fully implemented, will be no exception.

The only way to prevent file sharing would be for ISPs to stop connecting consumers to the Internet, and instead give them a connection to a "Walled Garden" with proxy servers for the web, email, and a few other services.  Besides being highly unpopular, this measure would stifle innovation, because anyone who invents a new service would need to seek permission from the ISPs, and probably pay them, before consumers would be allowed to connect to the service.  I hope such drastic action will not be taken; but that means we will have to live with file sharing for the foreseeable future.

Our first step in shielding children from internet pornography must be to make sure that we understand the nature of the technology, and its social dimensions - how children are using it, their motives, and those of the other parties involved.

With that in mind, may I suggest a different solution that might satisfy everyone - except those who will have to pay for it, because it will add perhaps £50 to the retail cost of an Internet connection.  While you might not particularly like my suggestion, and I expect there are problems with it that I have not thought of, I hope it will at least illustrate the kind of reasoning that I think is helpful in producing a more workable regime than the one you propose.

Modems could include a small built-in unit, with a screen, smartcard reader, keypad, and a few gigabytes of flash storage, that would be hardwired between the modem connection and the downstream wireless or wired LAN ports, with a mutual lock to the upstream (ISP) connection.  This unit would serve as a parentally controlled filter.  The screen, smartcard reader and keypad would be not unlike those of the Amstrad "E-m@iler" telephone, but the keypad would have fewer buttons, and the unit would need neither an alphabetic keyboard nor telephone functionality.  When a child uses the web on their computer and encounters a page that has been blocked by the ISP, the parent would be able to go to the modem unit, insert their smartcard and type their PIN number, view the page that has been blocked by the ISP, and choose whether to allow their child to view the page on their own computer.  The unit would also function as a proxy server for file sharing networks, and use its flash memory to store any files downloaded by the child, for later inspection and possible release by the parent.  Amstrad has several years' experience at preventing users from unlocking their E-m@ilers (their motive being that the E-m@iler, unlike the unit proposed here, calls a premium rate number every day to pay Amstrad for their service).  This experience is essential to prevent children from cracking the protection mechanisms.  It is essential that the unit is an integral part of the user's internet gateway, and is cryptographically locked to the ISP connection (and vice versa). In contrast, software running on the family PC would be harder for parents to operate, and much easier for children to bypass.  For the avoidance of doubt I have no connection to Amstrad, nor any financial interest in my proposal.

The chief problem with my suggestion is the howls of protest that it will bring down from the film and recording industries: equipment manufacturers would be aiding and abetting file sharing of copyright material by providing the proxy software on their modems, and the government would be condoning it.  This is where the government would have to show leadership, and tell the industry that child protection is more important than their revenue streams.  It might need to amend the Digital Economy Act to exempt the equipment manufacturers from criminal or civil liability for aiding and abetting consumers' file sharing.

Like your proposal, mine requires ISPs to classify web resources, and still suffers from the problem of false classification; but it gives parents, even technologically challenged ones, the power to unlock false-positive content immediately: it will not be necessary to switch off filtering completely, or argue with an obstinate ISP, in order to view a false-positive page.  Unfortunately, no system can avoid the problem of false negatives: some web porn will always get past any classification system.  So we're still in fig-leaf territory, it's just that parents will be able to remove the fig leaves that have been put in places where they should not be.  Children will therefore not have a valid reason to ask their parents to switch off the filtering completely.  Another advantage of my proposal is that it offers effective parental filtering of all content from file-sharing networks: something that is conspicuously absent both from your proposals and from the status quo.  However, it does raise a number of challenging questions.  The first, obviously, is who will pay the extra cost of the modem.  The second is how many parents will be sufficiently concerned to use the system - bearing in mind that many parents equip their young children's bedrooms with a TV set, a computer, and a games console with 18-rated games.

I think this proposal will be more effective than purely ISP-based filtering because it attempts to address the social as well as the technological dimensions of the problem; it tries to be honest about internet content that is outside the web; and it puts parents firmly in charge.  If we really want to protect children by regulating ISPs, then whichever scheme we adopt must have these ingredients, if we want it to succeed.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Global Warming - Optimist or Pessimist?

Review by Freeman Dyson of A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies by William Nordhaus

Dyson writes a lucid account of Nordhaus' work, which uses the methodology of economics to cost our options for dealing with global warming. In particular, Nordhaus uses "inflation-adjusted dollars", so that losses or gains at any time over the next 100 years can be compared by expressing them in year-2005 dollars.

Dyson has a great many interesting things to say, and his analysis of Nordhaus' results is that the "ambitious" proposals of Al Gore and Sir Nicholas Stern would prove prohibitively expensive, and instead we should develop the science and technology for a low-cost backstop (a technological fix or "silver bullet"), and also pursue an "optimal" policy of a gradually increasing global carbon tax in case the backstop is not discovered.

The overall tone is optimistic; but there is a pessimistic reading of Nordhaus' data as well as an optimistic one: it all depends where you set your datum. If, following the book review, we choose "business as usual" as the reference point (zero), and we present the options in the same order as in the review, then measuring wealth in trillions of inflation-adjusted dollars ($T):

OptionRelative Outcome ($T)
Business as usual0
Kyoto incl US+1
Kyoto excl US0
Low-cost backstop +17

In economic terms, the Stern/Gore policies are the worst possible choices, and this remains true no matter how you present the data.

The "optimal" policy seems relatively benign, compared to "business as usual", but it seems to me that this is the wrong comparison. "Business as usual" includes the considerable economic cost of the environmental damage and lost business opportunities caused by global warming. What we should really compare with is the "low-cost backstop" - this means business as usual but with a low-cost "silver bullet" that will offset the problems of global warming. Without that mitigation, "business as usual" will make the world $17 trillion worse off. Here are the same figures relative to the low-cost backstop, and this time in numerical order:

OptionRelative Outcome ($T)
Low-cost backstop0
Kyoto incl US-16
Kyoto excl US-17
Business as usual-17

The Stern/Gore solutions are still the worst possible choices, and are most unlikely to be adopted. The other results do not give cause for optimism: all the other choices have a much worse outcome than the low-cost backstop or "silver bullet". "Low-cost backstop" really means the wealth that we would be able to create if global warming were not a problem: large deviations from this figure will be economically and politically disruptive. Furthermore, among the other choices there is not a large difference in global financial outcome between the most beneficial solution ("optimal") and the least benefical ("business as usual" or "Kyoto excluding the USA").

There will be a large difference in the details of the different outcomes, particularly in the distribution of the resulting wealth, because the measure of total wealth hides growth in some countries if it is offset by destruction elsewhere. This strongly suggests that each country will pursue the policies that are most favourable to itself, even if they are least favourable to other countries; that the outcome for total global wealth will be only slightly worse than if all countries agreed and implemented an optimal treaty; and that all major and emerging economies will adapt to the new circumstances, but will take a share of the $17T of pain. In this picture, the biggest losers are likely to be the countries whose economic health is determined more by decisions outside than inside their borders: countries that are already poor and have an inflexible rather than an "emerging" economy.

However, the main result is unmistakeable: if global warming occurs, the world will be much less wealthy than if it does not occur. $17T is no small amount - it is the total market capitalisation of all the companies listed on Wall Street.

A further reason for pessimism is that, absent a silver bullet, none of the choices that we can make will cause a large increase in Nordhaus' measure of global wealth over the next 100 years.

If the destruction wrought by global warming will cost $17T in today's prices, then by far the best thing we can do is to invest in the discovery and development of the "silver bullet" technologies that Dyson describes.

The most valuable contribution of Nordhaus' work is to tell us precisely how much more we should spend on that research and development (R&D) before listening to complaints that the total amount spent (rather than the quality, direction, timing and importance of the research) is a waste. $17T buys an awful lot of R&D, even if it spread over 100 years: $170B per year worldwide. By way of comparison, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the global research project into nuclear fusion power, receives $0.5B per year. Under the sustained onslaught of additional R&D, funded at this scale for several decades, many of the problems of global warming will surely yield.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Prime Minister's Petitions

Since November 2006, you have been able to sign e-petitions to the Prime Minister here; you may also create your own e-petition.

2,980 petitions are accepting signatures on 14th February 2007. 2,089,438 votes have been cast for these petitions, implying that the "average" (mean) petition has 701 votes.

However, the votes are distributed very unevenly: 88% of the votes are cast for 2% of the petitions, and one petition has attracted more than half the votes. Less than 5% of the petitions are "above average". The median petition has only 15 votes.

What conclusions can be drawn? It might be possible to please most of the voters; but it is a waste of effort trying to please most of the petition writers: the majority of petitions have so little support that they do not deserve political attention.

This appears to support the style of government that we already have. Large numbers of votes do count; but the average petition will be fobbed off with nothing more than a polite letter. The only thing that will change is that now you will be fobbed off with a polite email - and maybe follow-up emails from Number 10, for the rest of your life. Such is the march of technology.

Power Laws and Petitions

(Discussion here)

Monday, 27 November 2006


Blajorism n. A cross-party political consensus typified by the leadership of John Major and Tony Blair, in which a leader with no strong convictions offers a likable but bland personality to the electorate, in place of the atavistic and deeply unattractive beliefs of his party. The inherently deceptive nature of Blajorism fosters doublethink, spin, and sleaze; while its cross-party support leads to political stasis at worst, or a slow drift that is eventually terminated by the next political revolution. Cf. Butskellism.

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Camel Caravans and Linen Shirts

Greg Clark MP is developing Conservative Party policy on social justice, and he has given us on his blog a flavour of the work in progress. He draws on two metaphors, the "linen shirt" of Adam Smith, and the "camel caravan" of the columnist Polly Toynbee. Toynbee's metaphor is of our nation as a camel caravan crossing the desert: "everyone may be moving forward, but if the distance between those right at the back and rest of the convoy keeps growing there comes a point at which it breaks up". This idea has attracted a great deal of interest, not least because Toynbee writes for The Guardian, and Conservatives usually find her ideas too left-wing for their liking. She favours greater redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.

Redistribution of wealth is, on the face of it, a good idea; but its biggest drawback is that it creates a poverty trap for those who benefit. For every extra pound they earn, the State takes away nearly a pound by reducing their benefits - yet Toynbee wants even more redistribution than we have now. Making our camel train into a tighter pack is an appealing image, but unfortunately it does not make it any easier for those at the back to move closer to the front. To put it another way, consider Adam Smith's linen shirt, "the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can fall into without extreme bad conduct." The "linen shirt problem" is one that wealth redistribution can never solve: if those with extreme bad conduct can afford a linen shirt, then the talisman of good conduct will become a bowler hat. One's relative wealth may have improved, but not one's relative position in the camel train. Poverty is indeed relative, as well as absolute; but relative poverty is a matter of ranking as well as of wealth.

Relative poverty is not always bad enough to be a matter of public concern. Many families on benefits have as prosperous a lifestyle as an average family did 30 years ago. It helps if they earn a little undeclared income on the side (many do). A house, a car, family holidays, and occasional luxuries are possible - particularly if the house is provided by the State with most of its rent paid. Most of the early adopters of expensive consumer goods (satellite TV, Playstations) do not live at the smarter end of town.

In stark contrast, how is it possible for a young working couple to buy their own home, and start a family, if they do not wish to make themselves dependent on the State? Both partners must work, simply to pay the mortgage. If there is not enough money left over to pay for child care, then children are simply unaffordable. It is frankly much easier to start a family if one is housed and paid benefits by the State. We cannot improve upon this deplorable situation by redistributing even more wealth to low-income families. We tend to remember the dark side of Margaret Thatcher's social policy; we have all but forgotten one of her most positive ideas, the "property-owning democracy".

When politicians talk about helping the poor, they tend to focus either on wealth redistribution, if they are socialists, or on wealth creation, if they are conservatives. There is a third way to help the poor: to reduce their outgoings. There are two easy ways to do this. First, we should replace the council tax - a regressive tax that greatly burdens those on low incomes. Second, we should reduce the cost of housing, using the law of supply and demand, by building a very large number of new homes - we might need as many as five million. We should build an additional 500,000 homes each year, and stop only when the price of an average home has fallen back to its historic value - three times the average annual salary (of one wage earner, not two). A Conservative government must face down the Nimbies who oppose all new development; if necessary, they must grant planning permission for construction on surplus agricultural land, create whole new towns, and incentivise builders to build now, rather than to wait for possible higher returns in the future.

Unfortunately, Conservative Party strategists take a different view: they seem to think that their best chance of winning power is for their leader to avoid controversy, keep smiling, and get his picture taken with African children and polar bears (not necessarily at the same time), while waiting for New Labour to drown in its own incompetence and sleaze. This is indeed a recipe for winning office, and the Conservatives will surely do so at the next election or the one after that. But what is the point of a bland smiling leader winning office, and then either implementing an undeclared manifesto, or continuing the New Labour project under a different name? It would not be good for Britain, nor would it earn the Conservatives a second term in office.

I am not confident that the Conservatives will offer us any better than this. They want to reject the "Nasty Party" image, but they seem to imagine a false dichotomy between the nasty aspects of Thatcherism and New Labour's tax'n'spend, and they choose (or pretend to choose) some variant of the latter. The way for the Conservatives to change their image is neither to become like New Labour, nor to distance their leader from the party, nor even to adopt vacuous initiatives such as "hug a hoodie": it is to rediscover the aspects of Thatcherism that were genuinely liberating. Michael Howard had a glimmer - in the last General Election campaign, he pointed out the absurdity that someone working 20 hours a week at the minimum wage must pay income tax. Today's Conservative leaders simply don't "get it". It does not concern them that, at a time of unparalleled prosperity, more and more people are dependent on the State. Nor do they feel the hardship of people on average incomes who try to pay their own way. They want power for its own sake. They don't deserve it.