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Carefully considering the opt-in-for-porn proposal

Posted: 21 November 2013 at 06:09:17

There is a petition hosted at the website asking that Internet service providers provide a mechanism whereby users must "opt-in" if they want to access pornographic content on the Internet. Here is an excerpt of the petition text:

The average person, even children, can type in the word "cat" or "home" or "soup" and instantly be inundated with offensive and disturbing pornographic images. Parents and individuals have to go to great lengths to install Internet filters that often don't weed out all porn. We are asking for greater protection and responsibility from Internet Service providers and our country. We are asking that people who are interested in porn should have to seek it and choose it. They should have to "Opt In" for it by making arrangements to receive it with their Internet Service Provider. Everyone else should be free from it and assumed "Opt Out".

Technology considerations

Let's consider what it would require to accomplish what this petition proposes.

First, the government would need to manage a centralized database of all the websites or web pages that would need to be blocked. There would need to be a way to report pages or sites that should be blocked and aren't (false negatives) and a way to report erroneously blocked pages or sites (false positives.)

Each Internet service provider would either be required to transparently route all web traffic for users who haven't "opted-in to pornography" through this centralized filter service or do their own filtering using the government's filter database.

Opt-in users would be able to bypass the centralized filter service and browse the web just like most users do today.

If this works, most normal web requests would be subjected to the rules defined in the centralized filter system. If you try to go to a known pornographic site, you'd get a webpage saying that site or page is blocked. If you try to go to a non-blocked site, it would appear like it does now.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? Let's see if there any potential downsides to this?

The first thing that comes to my mind is the fact that with all web traffic going through one centralized service, that's a potential single point of failure. If something were to happen to the centralized filter system, everyone who hasn't opted-in to pornography would be unable to browse any web pages. Or, if the system were not working, users would be able to get to pages or sites that would normally be blocked.

Even if the system doesn't go down or doesn't go down often, it is bound to add overhead and wait time to web requests, making users wait a little longer for web pages to load. Some users will "opt-in to pornography" just to get faster page load times.

The above described scenario works well as long as web pages are unencrypted. I think most of us are familiar with the fact that when we make an online purchase with a credit card, those transactions occur over a secure website connection that incorporates encryption. The URL changes from http://whatever to https://whatever and the data moving between your computer and the web server is encrypted with Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption to protect the data from being seen by anyone who might intercept the data mid-stream.

Because SSL encryption is negotiated between your computer and the web server, you can't proxy that connection by inserting an intermediary service like the government's centralized content filter. In addition, a growing number of websites are migrating to secure websites to protect against people capturing unencrypted data. Facebook, Google, Hotmail, and Twitter are just a few and they are some of the most used properties on the Internet. Because they use SSL encryption, they've essentially bought themselves an exemption from their traffic being subjected to the centralized filter system.

I don't know how many pornography websites incorporate SSL encryption, but that's one way they could easily evade an authoritarian content filter.

Internet service providers would undoubtedly be concerned if they're to be made liable for users not seeing blocked content unless they "opt-in" for pornography. That liability would cost ISPs time and money and undoubtedly some kind of compliance and audit processes. Pete Ashdown, owner of XMission, an Internet service provider based in Salt Lake City, said in a recent interview that XMission would be forced out of business by the government making them liable for filtering content.

Most of us know pornography when we see it, but when it comes to identifying what is and is not supposed to be blocked, there is bound to be grey areas where it is debatable.

I know some parents that wouldn't want their children to see pictures of women in bikini swimsuits. Other parents wouldn't have a problem with that and would not want such pictures blocked by the almighty filter.

Commercially available content filter software like Net Nanny and K9 Web Protection give administrators the ability to "dial in" what kind of content they want blocked. It's doubtful a centralized filter system managed by the government would give anyone that kind of control. More likely, it's either blocked or it isn't.

Potential political dangers

In 1913, the 16th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified. This amendment gave the federal government the constitutional ability to tax citizens' income and was a controversial issue at the time. Supporters of the income tax tried to allay opponents' fears by promising that the federal government would never take more than 2 percent tax of a person's income.

With that historical perspective in mind and knowing the federal government has a pretty predictable track record of growing programs far beyond their original scope, we should consider what kind of impact a centralized Internet pornography filter could mean a few years down the road.

Today, the author of the petition wants pornography blocked, but what about other potentially harmful content? Tomorrow, will someone be petitioning the government to block information about illegal drugs, explosives, terrorism, or (gasps) guns?! Don't wonder if it might happen; Assume it will.

There is some danger this optional pornography filter could turn into something akin to Iran's Internet use policies or China's "Great Firewall" that limit the public's ability to use unsanctioned online services.

Centralized filtering is a tremendous potential danger to privacy. If all filtered web traffic is routed through a centralized filter system, that gives the government instant access to every web request you make. This makes me wonder if the author of the petition, "M.G." of Greenbrae, California, is really an employee of the NSA or other data-hungry government organization.

What can and should parents do?

If you take just one thing away from reading this, it should be this: you don't have to wait for the government to do something to "protect the children!" You can do something about it right now, all by yourself.

The simplest, cheapest solution is to configure your computers to use OpenDNS's DNS servers. After you do this, when you type in a domain name that is associated with a known pornography site (e.g. ""), your web browser won't take you to the real Internet address. Instead it will take you an OpenDNS server and your web browser will display a message that the domain is blocked.

Here is a Youtube video that shows how to set up your home computers, or your whole home network, to use OpenDNS:

Another free solution is K9 Web Protection which is developed by Blue Coat.

You should talk to your Internet service providers. Some ISPs do offer filtering options for their customers.

Some parents want more control in a filtering solution. There are lots of products that provide a greater ability to express what you do and do not want blocked. Some of these products extend this filtering protection to devices like tablets and phones as well. In addition, some packages will provide active feedback, alerting you via e-mail or text message, if you desire, if a computer or device is being used inappropriately.

I searched around and PC Magazine has a good list that explains and compares a bunch of different filtering products.
Net Nanny seems to be at the top of most lists.

One thing that some people have brought up in discussions about this "opt-in for pornography" petition is that it would be reassuring to know your kids are protected from Internet pornography no matter where they go. Right now, if you install your own content filter at home your kids are safe as long as they're at home. Once they go to a public library or a friend's house, they may be subjected to an endless stream of inappropriate content.

Technology is a tool, but as we've considered the possibility of the government providing a centralized filter system, we can see there are a lot of holes and potential holes. It may be trivial to bypass a centralized web content filter and it's debatable whether a one-size-fits-all filter will meet parents' requirements.

It seems almost certain our children will encounter some kind of inappropriate content sooner rather than later. We can try our hardest to protect them and shield them from it, but shouldn't we also be preparing them for it?

Parents should explain to children what pornography is and that they're not going to be in trouble if something unexpectedly appears on their screen while they're using the computer or other device. They should feel comfortable alerting their parents or other responsible adults nearby when that happens. Let them understand that most adults are interested in preventing them being exposed to such content and so they're helping by identifying when it happens. This arms children with information and responsibility so they won't feel powerless and guilty when something slips through in front of them.