Blocking Objectionable Content on the Web

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What you see is what you get.., but who decides what you get? Controlling information has always been an issue of dispute between establishments and citizens. The goalposts change every time there is a change in the regime, controlling authority or the set of very liquid variables we call ethics. There comes a point when common sense drives us to enforce a ban against something despicable.

Presently the world over, majority of the countries irrespective of their religion or culture, are concerned that the Internet and other mobile technologies must not be allowed to become a safe haven for sexual child abuse and its related imagery.

Advent of the Internet into the lives of common people resulted in an uncontrollable freedom not only to the access of information but its publication as well. When the initial fever on realizing a long-awaited dream passed, we found ourselves faced with a dilemma about how to make this new source of information suitable for everyone. While people are working towards making the Internet accessible to all parts of the world, a huge responsibility is also emerging that points towards delivering quality information that is free from objectionable and offensive content. The scope of this article doesn't question the rules that qualify information to be objectionable or not, but looks at various techniques that have evolved over the years and some of the recent developments in making the Internet a safe place for its users.

The basic technique that Internet Service Providers use to control content acts at two levels: Application level and Packet Level. Both methods have their pros and cons, but none outweighs the others.

In application level blocking, ISPs control the access of certain Internet services or protocols like http or ftp by channeling them through "proxy" servers where the filtering is performed. In such a case, if a user is trying to access a site which is blocked, he will receive a pre-configured error message. Though this method is very popular among ISPs, it is not 100% reliable, and can be bypassed in more than one way.

Packet level blocking is more of a hardware-based solution where the router checks the address of the computer sending the information and compares it against a list of blocked addresses. It discards information that seems to be coming from any of the blocked addresses. This method is more effectively implemented at the backbone service providers than at individual ISPs.

In the second quarter of 2002, the EU parliament voted that the ISPs cannot be forced to block content of objectionable nature as a way of regulating content on the Internet. They re-iterated the importance of self-regulation, and other rating systems.

An example of what ISPs can do in order to make the content safer is that of BT (British Telecom). British Telecom has taken  a bold step of blocking all such illegal websites, in a Project called CleanFeed. The process involves both the hardware and software level filtering techniques using the block lists produced by an independent industry watchdog-the Internet Watch Foundation. The project is all set to go live in July 2004.

The Internet Watch Foundation in UK is involved in InHoPE Association (internet Hotline Providers in Europe) internationally providing 20 hotline services to report illegal content mostly across Europe, Australia and USA. Due to absence of similar infrastructure in the major part of the Asian market it is taking a while before such an organized effort can be put into practice. At present Taiwan and South Korea are member and associate member of the organization respectively.

IWF and InHope control the access of the Black lists through a strong trust system of organizations that obtain their membership under the scrutiny of the government and other law enforcing authorities.

In market driven economies like the US and the UK, trend is developing for controlled Internet access. Companies are providing clients the option of having access to "clean Internet service" or "best effort service" which either allows access to a few safe sites or stop the access to a few black listed sites accordingly, to provide safer options for families. The added cost of setup if borne on the ISP's end can give them an additional advantage over their competitors and hence fuel the drive for a safer Internet.

There is no doubt that it is our responsibility to provide a fair chance to our children to develop in an environment where they can grow up to be balanced citizens and be able to make the right decision when it comes to surfing the Internet. It is also our responsibility to not enter into such rules and regulations that will take away our right to freedom of information.


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