Tag Archives: politics

Blocks, both technical and mental

Blocking content from the Internet is getting a lot of press of late. The last couple of weeks has seen the Pirate Bay being blocked by a number of large ISPs and debate over whether the blocking of “adult” content should be opt-in or opt-out.

Unfortunately the enthusiasm to “protect the children” and “protect the copyright holders” seems to have pushed aside much of the debate of whether we should be doing this at all or whether it’s practical.

Whether we should be doing it or not is political. I have my opinions1 but what I want to concentrate on here is whether or not blocking such content is actually possible.

There are a number of different ways of vetting content. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they’re all deeply flawed.

First, a common one from politicians: the Internet is just like TV and cinema:

Perry said that she has been accused of censorship over the campaign, but argued that the internet was no different to TV and radio and should be regulated accordingly.

No, no it isn’t. There are a handful of TV channels, even taking cable and satellite into account, and a relatively small number of movies released every week. It’s practical to rate movies. TV programmes are distributed centrally, so pressure can be placed on a small number of UK-based commercial entities when they do naughty things.

The Internet is very different. Firstly, counting the number of web pages is rather harder. This is what Wikipedia has to say:

As of March 2009, the indexable web contains at least 25.21 billion pages.[79] On July 25, 2008, Google software engineers Jesse Alpert and Nissan Hajaj announced that Google Search had discovered one trillion unique URLs.

Note that even the smaller number is from three years ago. I’d bet that it’s not smaller now. Clearly the same system of rating an regulation clearly isn’t going to work on that scale. And even if it was possible to rate each of these sites, the UK government has little leverage over foreign websites.

There are basically three ways to automate the process: white list, black list and keyword scanning.

A white list says “you can visit these websites.” Even assuming no new websites are ever added and no new content is ever created, rating those 25 billion pages is not practical. I don’t think we want an official approved reading list.

A black list is the opposite: “you can visit anything except these pages.” We have the same scale problem as with white lists and a few more. Much of the Internet is “user contributed” and it’s not hard to create new sites. If my site is blocked, I can create a new one with the same content very, very quickly. Basically, there’s just no way to keep on top of new content.

Keyword scanning is exactly as it sounds. Your internet traffic is scanned and if certain keywords are spotted, the page is blocked. It’s automated and dynamic, but what keywords do you look for? “Sex”? Well, do you want to block “sex education” websites? “Porn”? That would block anti-porn discussion as well as the real thing.

The scanners can be a lot more sophisticated than this but the fundamental problem remains: there’s no way to be sure that they are blocking the correct content. Both good and bad sites are blocked, and still with no guarantee that nothing untoward gets through.

In all cases, if children can still access “adult” content with relative ease — both deliberately and accidentally — what’s the point?

Of course I’m not in favour of taking content without paying for it or exposing children to inappropriate material. But, to use a cliche, the genie is out the bottle. Like the reaction to WikiLeaks there is little point in pretending that nothing has changed or that the same techniques and tools can be used to fight them.

Instead, if you’re a publisher you need to make your content legally available and easier to access than the alternative. iTunes has showed that people are willing to pay. So far, you’ve mostly shown that you’d rather treat paying customers as criminals. That’s not helping.

As for protecting children, it all comes back to being a responsible parent. Put the computer in the living room. Talk to them. Sure, use white or black lists or filtering, just be aware that it can never be 100% effective and that not everyone has children that need protecting. Whatever the Daily Mail and your technically unaware MP says, you can’t say the connection is being checked, problem solved.

  1. I’m basically anti-censorship and in favour of personal responsibility. There are already laws covering the distribution obscene materials, why should there be restrictions on legal materials? []

Doesn’t add up

Today the Telegraph had an article claiming that “the top one per cent of British earners are now paying almost 30 per cent of all income tax.” It’s then painted as a bad, unexpected revelation. But I’m not sure that should be the case. In one of my mini-Ben Goldacre moments, I think it’s one of those areas where your intuition and the numbers don’t necessarily align.

This post isn’t about politics or fairness or even, really, taxes. Instead it’s about maths, because what the story fails to say is that you would absolutely expect a small number of high earners to foot most of the bill.

Let’s make some silly assumptions and see how the numbers work out:

  • Everyone pays the same 20% tax rate. We’re ignoring the tax-free component so that should work out to be considerably less than the rich pay but more than almost everyone else
  • We’ll say that 90% of people earn 20000. The national average is higher than that, but there are a lot of people who work part time and pay no income tax at all
  • And we’ll say the last 10% earn 60000. I don’t know how realistic that is as an average, but it’s nearer high-rate tax band cut-over than it is the millions that some CEOs and bankers get and it’s still a long way from the 50p tax rate

How do the numbers work?

The people on the lower income each pay 4000 in tax and the more comfortable pay 12000. But there are nine of the average people for every one of the rich, making the total take 4000 * 9 + 12000 * 1, or 48000.

So the high earner pays 12000 of the complete tax take of 48000, which is 25%.

(If you increase the tax rate on our hypothetical higher earner to 30% he ends up paying a third of all income tax.)

As I say, I don’t want to get into the fairness of it all, but a little maths, some wild assumptions and no research shows that, actually, the rich probably should be paying a reasonable percentage of the total income tax bill.

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The weird world of the Daily Mail

Today the Daily Mail is complaining about a joke that was broadcast on the News Quiz in October last year. (Is it still considered news six months after the event?)

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading the article, so, to summarise:

  1. Broadcasting a joke that implies, but doesn’t use, a swear word is bad
  2. But printing the same joke in a newspaper is okay
  3. Broadcasting scantily clad women dancing is bad
  4. But printing pictures of the same is okay
  5. Putting quotes around a word to indicate disdain is good writing
  6. A single complaint represents The Silent Majority
  7. Mob rule would be a good thing
  8. Potentially causing offence is grounds for severe sanctions
  9. (But see bullets two and four for exceptions)
  10. Knee-jerk liberals — whatever they are — are a wide-spread problem
  11. Knee-jerk tabloids are okay
  12. Personal responsibility is good
  13. (Unless we have to exercise it ourselves)
  14. Your opinion is wrong
  15. Mine is right
  16. Banning stuff that we don’t like represents freedom
  17. Stating things as fact makes them true
  18. Black is white
  19. We’ve always been at war with Eastasia

I may have veered off target a little at the end but I think that’s pretty close to the core of the article. Did I miss anything?

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