Thursday, 16 May 2013

Online Safety Bill (take two)

There are a few bits of zombie legislation that just can't be put down to their eternal slumber, no matter how much we try to put them out of their misery. One is the idea of providing police with more powers to snoop on our activities online in a way we would never condone if done "in the flesh", and another is the idea of "protecting" us by forcing people to opt in to adult (pornographic) content. Last year Christian backed Tory MP Clare Perry put forward her unworkable idea for protecting the children and it seems that all this has led to is a revised version of the Online Safety Bill to be attempted this year.

What you're going to read below will be much easier to understand when you realise that the duty of monitoring all of this is being put on to OFCOM, and is using definitions that are intended for use in the broadcast mediums of TV and radio. Our MPs are seriously going to be looking at some potential law that treats the internet not as an interactive medium, but as a one way flow of information. Keep that in mind as you wonder how anyone can possibly think this is workable.

Is this version any better than the one that was actually laughably unable to be implemented before? Let's take a look.

Section 1 - Duty to provide a service that excludes adult content

(1)Internet service providers must provide to subscribers an internet access
service which excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3)
have been fulfilled.

(2)Where mobile telephone network operators provide a telephone service to
subscribers, which includes an internet access service, they must ensure this
service excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have
been fulfilled.

To start with we're going to force ISPs (and mobile network operators) to default to an internet service that does not display "harmful" content. This is supposedly defined in the Communications Act 2003. If you can find a definition, please let me know, the nearest I can find is interpretation on the OFCOM website.

This is less specific than last years bill which tried to pin things directly on "pornographic images", but it is essentially still the same gig. ISPs are going to be asked to perform a miracle and legally not allow any "offensive" or "harmful" material to be seen.

This is still, as it was last year, impossible. Simply by operating, ISPs and mobile network operators will be breaking the law from the moment this is passed as they will have absolutely no bulletproof way of stopping pornographic images from displaying without also potentially removing non-pornographic images. Hell, I'd say the only way to do it is to do a network wide block on ALL images.

And even then that doesn't catch hate speech, graphic sexual or depraved text content, skype calls, etc. etc.

And what can you do to regain control from the veto-web?

(3)The conditions are—
(a)the subscriber “opts-in” to subscribe to a service that includes adult
(b)the subscriber is aged 18 or over; and
(c)the provider of the service has an age verification policy which meets
the standards set out by OFCOM and which has been used to confirm
that the subscriber is aged 18 or over.

We need to say we want to be able to see adult content, and be over 18...and prove it using an OFCOM sanctioned way of determining if the person buying the internet service is over 18. Simple, hopefully.

So once we've gone through this process of letting our ISP know we want to be able to see boobs and willies if we want, and proved we're an adult as defined by the state (and therefore suddenly free from any potential harm that was there a month before we became an adult) what then?

The whole service is open again, anyone using the connection, whatever the age, whether they are a resident of the house or not, now has "unfiltered" access to the net...once again putting the onus on parents and guardians to do their duty and keep children educated and supervised where appropriate.

In this section, internet service providers and mobile telephone network
operators shall at all times be held harmless of any claims or proceedings,
whether civil or criminal, providing that at the relevant time, the internet
access provider or the mobile telephone operator was—
(a)following the standards and code set out by OFCOM in section 2; and
(b)acting in good faith.

Thankfully, despite breaking the law, ISPs will be exempt from proceedings as long as they can prove they tried *really hard* to follow OFCOM's rules. Phew, that will keep everyone protected!

Section 2 - Role of OFCOM

This section has been beefed up a bit from it's original wording last year, and gives OFCOM the responsibility to come up with the rules on what will be satisfactory when it comes to people verifying their age as detailed in section 1. They'll be the place to go for complaints about how internet providers aren't doing a good enough job at forcing ISPs to use a fishing net to catch air.

I'm sure OFCOM are thrilled with the potential that brings.

Section 3 - Duty to provide a means of filtering online content

Manufacturers of electronic devices must provide customers with a means of
filtering content at an age appropriate level from an internet access service at
the time the device is purchased.

Still we reside in this ambiguous area of nonsense that shows how a lack of care of thought has simply moved from the last version of this bill to the current one. The use of "at the time the device is purchased" is so vague it could include second hand sales.

In reality it'll only ever be used to make manufacturers comply (as much as they'll be able to, which is ineffectively at best) in the future with this notion that what people view on their devices can be limited by default.

But I reiterate what I did a year ago. This legally obliges any device made with an internet connection to filter for adult content. I already pointed out this includes fridges, garage doors and coffee machines. Can you think of any more devices that we need to make sure manufacturers install filtering protocols on for the sake of the children?

Section 4 - Duty to provide information about online safety

Internet service providers and mobile telephone network operators must
provide prominent, easily accessible and clear information about online safety
to customers at the time the internet service is purchased and shall make such
information available for the duration of the service.

As said in the blog post about the ancestor to this bill, all this means is that ISPs need to provide a link on their website to provide information about how you shouldn't post naked selfies, and never take e-candy from e-strangers.

Section 5 - Duty to educate parents of children under 18 on online safety

The Secretary of State must provide means of educating parents of children
under the age of eighteen about online safety.

Some common sense at least being inserted here, that perhaps it might be a good idea to try to educate as well as control, just a little bit.


This whole exercise is a pointless, pointless mess. It's like the opposite of a good will gesture, presuming that we all need protecting by being told to opt in to see the naughty stuff...but having levels of control so insanely simple that once unlocked all of the responsibility must be taken on by parents as much as they were before. What is gained, at all, by doing this?

Arguably the ability for parents to pay less attention to what their kids are doing, and to educate them, will come in the form of every internet enabled device having some kind of parental-lock on it regardless of whether it is appropriate to expect the manufacturer to need to do this (see Fridges).

But depressingly a year has gone by and politicians still think that there is any effective way of censoring the web to remove it of sinful material. They are asking product makers, and ISPs, to spend money and time developing solutions that they at least implicitly admit in this very legislation that they're not going to be able to achieve. It's tokenism for a nanny-state age, and even if it rises again it is time to try and put this bit of zombie legislation back in the grave.

What are your thoughts? Let me know below.