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David Cameron. Keyword Blocking. China. Filtering. Child Safety.

My general feeling about keyword blocking is that it’s useful for parents who don’t mind over blocking the web for very young children. It’s not suitable for teenagers and it’s certainly not suitable for adults who wish to avoid pornography without being blocked from other adult themed websites such as lingerie or sex education.

You could argue that anyone who buys a domain with the word ‘porn’ deserves to be classified as ‘porn’. However, there are sites that have foolishly used the term. Foodporn.com cabinporn.com lead to completely innocent websites that have nothing to do with adult content. Personally, I think they almost deserve to be classified for being dumb. I was interviewed for BBC Newsnight recently about this very subject.

There has been a media frenzy across the UK after David Cameron announced that he was going to force search engines to block ‘blacklisted’ keywords to make it more difficult for pedophiles to search and distribute images and videos of children being abused. Unfortunately, some bloggers and journalists misunderstood the Prime Minister’s assertions and assumed that he was referring to pornography keywords. Here are some facts about his statements and what I think about each of them from an implementation perspective:

  1. The British Government wants to enforce ISPs to automatically filter out pornography in households. Customers must register their interest to access adult content.
  2. The British Government wants to make it illegal to posses pornography depicting rape
  3. The British Government wants search engines to ban “blacklisted” keywords

These are three very different problems that require three very different technical approaches and solutions. I can see why David Cameron is approaching all three at the same time but it’s causing a lot of confusion in the media. It’s also an excuse for the ‘open web and privacy advocates’ to say no to everything instead of actually measuring the benefits and then making a better informed opinion.

Forcing ISPs to implement filters by default

  1. I don’t believe in censoring the web. So, I’m against the automatic filtering of content of any kind – unless it’s illegal. MetaCert stands to gain more than any company from automatic filtering, but it’s not the right approach.
  2. I believe ISPs should be “encouraged” to implement new and improved family safety controls to help parents protect their kids from what they deem to be harmful or inappropriate content. Parents should be given tools that work, to safeguard their family. TalkTalk was the first to implement new parental controls in the UK. Unfortunately they don’t block as much as they should and they block innocent sites on mass scale. So in short, they’re not nearly as good as the Government keeps saying they are.
  3. The Open Rights Group is constantly giving reasons to do nothing, stating that people can get around filters. They give lots of good examples of how you can bypass filtering solutions. A minority of kids being able get around these systems is not an excuse to do absolutely nothing. Instead of sticking out their chest and arguing against all forms of blocking (even illegal content blocking!), they should join the conversation and suggest ways to make improvements.

Pornography depicting rape

This is going to be extremely difficult to enforce as it’s completely open to interpretation. What one person depicts as rape another will could see it as BDSM (Wikipedia link). Some will say that BDSM should be banned but then others will think it’s… and on we go.

“Blacklisted” keywords

This has been the cause for most confusion. When David Cameron refers to the blocking of “blacklisted” keywords, he is not referring to pornography search terms. He’s referring to search “phrases” that are used by pedophiles to search for and distribute videos and images of children being raped and abused (i.e. illegal content). This is a blacklist of keywords known only to experts in the family safety business specifically working to combat this issue. That said, within this list, some of the slang could make up part of an innocent search. So, while I actually agree with the ban on this particular keyword list, the experts responsible for choosing which phrases to ban, must be exceedingly careful in picking the right ones.

Let me emphasize that I am not advocating censorship. I believe it’s time for Industry to overhaul all filtering solutions that exist. And I believe all companies that provide access to the web, have a responsibility to allow customers to block and unblock what they feel is harmful to either themselves or their children, or the vulnerable adults for whom they are responsible.

Enforcing search Google and Bing to automatically block search phrases will only encourage people to move to another search engine. Furthermore, I’d like Google to stop asserting that it “removes” illegal content from the Web. Google doesn’t actually own or host any content so all it is capable of doing is remove search results. This means the content to which they refer, is accessible via another search engine.

Paul Walsh

is the Founder and CEO of MetaCert. He started his Internet career at AOL during the mid 90's where he was one of seven members of the new technologies team as the Technical Accounts Manager and International Beta Coordinator. More recently Paul helped to instigate the industry standard used today for labeling websites to help protect families from harmful content on the Web. Paul is an Irish expat living with his wife Sheetal in San Francisco after spending 12 years in London. You can follow him on twitter

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