Friday, 26 July 2013

She's Lost Control

There has been much amusement this week arising from the government's initiative on porn filtering. David Cameron's proposed "hackathon for child safety" was the sort of idiocy that even the scriptwriters of The Thick of It would have rejected as preposterous. As if determined to draw the hounds of derision off her leader, Claire Perry topped this by proving that she has absolutely no understanding of how the Internet works after her own website was hacked, leading to her clumsily libelling a blogger who reported it. The further revelation that TalkTalk's site blocker is the work of Huawei, the technology company with deep links to the Chinese army, was almost anti-climactic.

Perry has an extensive track record of assertive stupidity, despite only being an MP for 3 years. Her background is typical of the modern managerial political class: Oxford, a Harvard MBA, stints at Bank of America, McKinsey and Credit Suisse. She is a corporate animal without empathy or talent, possessing a planet-sized sense of entitlement. Before selection as a candidate, she was a banker-friendly adviser to George Osborne. Since 2010, she has carved out a niche as an attack-dog for the privatisation of the NHS (the McKinsey link), and has relentlessly used porn as a means of self-promotion, becoming Cameron's self-styled "Adviser on the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood" as well as PPS to Philip Hammond, the Defence minister. The salient fact is that she has risen so far and so fast despite being gaffe-prone and having a toxic personality. Pointing out that she is technologically illiterate, and therefore unqualified to drive policy on Internet censorship, is as redundant as pointing out that her expertise in the area of childhood does not extend beyond having kids herself.

If you tend to believe what you read, see or hear via mainstream media, you might think any one or all of the following are true: half of the Internet is porn; porn is the biggest driver of traffic to Google; and the most popular search term is porn. In fact, none of them are true. You might also think that software can filter out porn - that the debate concerns simply whether we should do this. Again, this isn't the case. It's easy enough to block specific URLs or IP addresses, but it's also easy enough to bypass such blocks. This rerouting capability is built into the foundations of the Internet. Interfering with search indexes, so naughty words produce zero results, also fails due to false positives (e.g. Pussy Riot) and evolving euphemisms and acronyms (e.g. MILF). Even analysing images for suspicious amounts of flesh tends to fail as you cannot accurately gauge context - is it porn, art or just a lingerie advert?

The proponents of porn filters often insist that the software will be used only for extreme images that are (in effect) records of a crime scene, however this caveat does not make defining the boundary any easier. In practice, a judgement must be made as to whether something is or is not porn of an illegal kind. This means after-the-fact assessment, which in turn means that the infrastructure of porn control depends on two things: the recording of all online activity (so you can produce a smoking gun on demand) and the association of that activity with a real-world identity (the digital fingerprint). Of course, that is the infrastructure of control full-stop, and you can be sure the state will not limit itself to just pursuing illegal porn (or just post-crime investigation - the promise of Big Data is an upgrade from profiling to precrime). The high media profile accorded to filters is just a diversion.

In this light, Claire Perry's ignorance is no hindrance. Her job is to provide media-friendly outrage as cover for the evolving relationship between the government, the ISPs, social media and search providers. This relationship is all about power. The campaign for porn filters has little to do with protecting fragile young minds, but a lot to do with setting a template for controlling the "ungoverned" Internet. The ISPs want a commercial oligopoly. The government wants a monopoly on security. These interests are congruent. The one thing you can be sure of is that "parental control" will deliver little power to the people.

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