Is the UK at risk of being an online laughing stock ?

Recently anyone in the UK cannot help to have seen the announcements from David Cameron of his intentions to create a rule enforcing filtering on UK consumer / residential / business broadband internet connectivity to curb the issues of child pornography as well as hate crime related and terrorism / fundamental religious sites.

Before we deep dive into my thoughts lets get the qualifications to talk on the topic out the way.

In August 2000 I co-created a firewall technology you might have heard of called SmoothWall, most of you know it as a GPL Linux firewall but on the back of that I created a company SmoothWall Ltd which provides exactly this filtering and protection to millions of children in schools across the UK and the US - in fact it's the market leader in filtering. In 2001 when I had the idea for SchoolGuardian and got William Anderson to knock up the concept graphics and marketing aids to help us get it to market little did I know it would become the defacto standard used by schools across the globe to this day, in fact Richard Moore current SmoothWall CEO and I were only discussing how proud we are of what it's turned into only last week.

When I exited SmoothWall I took a year out working with what I can describe as government services in the UK and US whose activities maintain the integrity of our daily lives, and then for two years I was Head of Internet Security for NTL the residential internet service provider (also with responsibility for the safety of Tesco Internet users). The mail anti abuse and the gateway protection services working with our network teams to use Linux technology to develop filters and dynamic technologies to keep users safe and platforms available to the 7m users on the network. I also sat on ISPA (Internet Service Providers Association) and advised amongst others the Home Office up to and around the time of the 7th July bombings in London. Since then I've been a certified "specialist" CLAS consultant certified by GCHQ our intelligence headquarters.

So I feel more than qualified from both a technology, platform and industry perspective to pass comment.

The Governments proposition

The UK Government would like to enforce an opt out filter on all users meaning all users have to opt in -  or out of censorship. That's per household before you assume per device. Anyone already spotting the chinks in the paper thin value prop of this plan ? All users opting in or out essentially are saying "Yes I am an adult I would like access to pornography please register my details on your database", do not doubt there will be a database - the UK government loves databases, doesn't quite know how to store, query or use them efficiently but it does love collating them.

The "porn" filter isn't just a "porn" filter - sources within the ISP community have confirmed to me that the list of blocked sites is being extended across other areas hate, drink / drug / eating disorder / suicide etc etc. And unfortunately with false positives and blocking errors you can guarantee that to maintain any form of usable internet connectivity (and freedom of thought and expression) a universal opt-out is the only common sense decision.

Talk Talk who already have a service for protecting kids in the UK will testify that it's not very efficient. The Guardian describing it aptly:

"Cameron praised HomeSafe when launching his scheme – but it emerged that the system collects data about every URL that customers try to access. The system holds a list of "banned" URLs determined to contain pornographic content; every request via TalkTalk's system is routed through Huawei's system and checked against the list, but requests from customers who have opted to view pornography are ignored. That, campaigners argue, means there is in effect no "opt out" from the filters – only from their application."

If moronic, frankly disturbed people want to get smutty illegal content they will and no filters will stop them - period. If anybody believes the the Internet Watch Foundation and CEOP actually have a value add to this proposition think again. I worked with the IWF at NTL and was seriously unimpressed. Talking to friends in three ISPs that perspective remains the same, well meaning folk who are trying to empty an ocean with an egg cup with take down orders and a lack of intelligent cohesive engagement, even when the likes of SmoothWall engage to help them.

Let's be blunt. If the Government put this into practice any of us can circumvent it in under sixty seconds without opting out simply by taking simple steps and we'd remain entirely off the radar of UK tracking auditing and logging. This whole soundbyte seems entirely driven by a very badly briefed Prime Minister whose advisors are absolutely clueless technically and don't realise that the rest of the world are laughing at them - audibly and publically.

When Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia (a UK appointed Cabinet Adviser) stands up and says it's ridiculous then maybe David Cameron's office will get the six ball pen wielding back office advisors to get back round the white board and ask them to engage the communal brain cell to actually back down and not make their master look like the technological doofus of the European Union. Worse still it makes our political leadership look technically backward at a time when technology is critical to the growth of commerce and the push and increase of broadband based industries.

Put the money you would have spent in this utterly inane cat and dog chase into replacing SOCA, into proper crime reporting and auditing and better liason with the ISPs who are not engaged with properly. Get them to assist our intelligence and guidance steering teams to write proper good practice guides on all relevant topics so we don't end up with knee jerk badly drafted badly thought out and badly delivered mantra like this. The government MUST engage with bodies such as The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), ISPs and the tech companies who can tell them how to not look like the silly boy in the class with his hand in the air craving attention.

We all want to keep our children safe. However none of us need a Government who don't understand technology then stand up and wave a big sign saying "invest in other countries as we really really are clueless when it comes to the internet".

In big 80 point Arial Bold thats exactly what you've done Mr Cameron.

3 thoughts on “Is the UK at risk of being an online laughing stock ?

  1. Well said, Richard. If I had the opportunity for just one question to Cameron it would have been along the lines of: why do you think it's a good idea to make our nation a laughing stock? At a time when most countries are getting more tech-savvy, we seem to be taking the opposite approach.

  2. Great post. Who exactly does advise No 10 about things technical?

    However, every parent reading this is going to want to know what you would recommend putting in place to protect children on the net at home. What will (have?) you put in place to keep your boy safe?

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