The web filter industry


There has been a LOT of noise over the past week about David Cameron’s proposals to have default on web filters for UK ISPs (which seems to be happening despite it not being part of official government policy, and entirely outside of any legislative framework). Claire Perry (Conservative MP for Devizes) has been leading the moral panic, though the meme has been bouncing around Westminster for some time and seems to cross party lines – I once heard Andy Burnham trotting out the same rhetoric (as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport), but luckily nothing was done then. The politicians mostly seem to be responding to calls from the traditional press media (and particularly the Daily Mail) which boil down to:

People are doing things on the Internet that we don’t understand. We don’t like that, so make them stop.

The Open Rights Group (which I regularly donate to) have taken the lead on the fight against this. It’s an important fight, and I’ll do anything in my power to help.

The geek response – it’s somebody else’s problem

A lot of geeks see web filters and other sorts of censorship as the type of damage that the Internet was designed to route around.

Yes, people will use VPNs. Some might even follow my guide for setting up your own (which you can run free in the cloud).

Yes, people will use proxies. Some might even follow my guide for using EC2 as a web proxy.

It’s true that the filters will be trivial to circumvent, and that the knowledge to do that is reasonably widespread.

The problem – this blog will get classified as ‘web blocking circumvention tools’ and nothing I write here will be visible to the passive majority who’ll remain sat behind their filters.

Life behind the wall

I spent a little over a decade working for firms that imposed web filters, so I know what it’s like, how counter-productive it is and how to tunnel through.

I’ve seen the false positives, and fought through the exception processes.

The bottom line here is that China is pretty much the only place that runs things for itself. Everywhere else gets its lists of what’s good and what’s bad from the same handful of (US) security firms. Their biggest customers (and certainly those driving the most restrictive rules) tend to be oppressive Middle Eastern regimes.

It’s not just the filter rules that get imported

One of my favourite authors, Charles Stross, pointed to an interesting article this morning:


An important subtext in the article led to this brief Twitter conversation:


So the moral crusade seems to boil down to this…

We should import the moral values of Saudi Arabia, because that’s somehow better than the moral values of the United States.

Though of course it’s never described like that. It’s always ‘think of the children’.

The industry itself

This isn’t one of those times where I smell the whiff of corporate corruption in the halls of Whitehall. Web filtering is a few $M pimple on the behind of the multi $B global security industry. You don’t need to spend too long behind the curtain to find that pretty much everything is farmed out to bots with precious little human involvement. When you do get a human involved it quickly becomes clear who calls the shots – if Bahrain wants something on the list it stays on the list. I’ve usually found it easier to get the list source to deal with false positives (Bahrain requests notwithstanding) than to get local exceptions on corporate filters. I’d expect that dealing with ISPs will be much harder – they don’t want to do filtering in the first place, and won’t want to spend any more on running costly exception processes. Our web liberty is on the market to the lowest bidder.


I usually try to be optimistic – to see the use of technology as a driver towards utopia, but this time around I’ll leave the final words to my dystopian friend Robert Dunne:


When they flick the switch look for me on the darknet.

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