Oh dear. Perhaps as well that other circumstances meant i had to skip yesterday’s Westminster eForum event on protecting children online. For i am not sure i could have contained myself, listening to to Government child safety adviser, Claire Perry, MP, claiming “reports that ISPs’ parental-control filters are blocking legitimate sites are “fanciful”“.
Apparently, recent reports that the newly implemented filters were blocking harmless sites – including her own – were no more than “anecdotal evidence”.
She added: “When these filters came out there was anecdotal evidence – some of it completely, completely fanciful – that sites were being overblocked. Including mine, which is ridiculous, because it wasn’t.”
As has been said of more than the occasional political pronouncement: “she would say that, wouldn’t she”.
Its predictable, makes for a neat sounbdbite and sadly suggests that the Prime Minister’s special adviser on the topic of online filtering has a dangerous lack of understanding as to how these things work.
For instance, she is also reported as saying that: “The filters you get [now] are far better, far stronger, much more effective and will not overblock.” (my italics)
If she really said that, then she doesn’t get it. Filters overblock. They also underblock. That is the nature of them. Its a little like credit scoring systems (on which i also used to provide professional advice for financial services companies).
Unless you block nothing – or everything – there will always be some proportion of false positives, some proportion of false negatives. You can vary the ratio of the one to t’other. But that’s about it. You can never eliminate both simultaneously.
So to state that filters “will not overblock” is either ignorance or wilful misleading, and fails to allow a more mature debate about where lines should be drawn and what an acceptable ratio is.
What else? Ah: some of the claims made were anecdotal. Which is a bit rich, given that her own “independent” parliamentary report on Online Child Protection (sponsored by two overtly Christian lobbying groups: Premier Christian Radio and SaferMedie) includes a fair bit of unsubstantiated evidence of its own.
She claims that her own website was not blocked, despite reports to the contrary. Really? The main report reporting this was in the Independent, which reported her site as being blocked by O2’s parental filters. Now, in fact, that is less of a big deal than it sounds, because the O2 parental filter is based on a whitelist approach and is utterly draconian in its approach to blocking. I would, frankly, be surprised if it hadn’t been included in their block list.
I’ll double check that later today.
Last up, she “also dismissed concerns that the filters would censor the web”. In which case she is not going to like a story i am working on right now. Mum’s the word, i fear. But on that, too, she is wrong – and i have the government statements to prove it.
Still, Ms Perry remains a person of influence, as they say, in this sphere.
So following the meeting i organised earlier this month – at which representatives from a wide selection of LGBT and other organisations in the UK got together to compare notes (aka “anecdotal evidence”) on what had been blocked, i shall be chatting to her office this morning to see if she would be prepared to meet with some of us who attended that meeting.
Not to argue the toss in respect of alternatives to filtering. But simply to present some of the evidence that emerged a couple of weeks back as to what WAS being filtered.
Whether she deigns to meet or not, i’ll let you know.