LOS ANGELES—I’ve been writing for years about internet policing and global issues related to adult content, with a focus on efforts by many countries, including English-speaking ones, to curtail sexual speech by some rather oppressive means. But it’s much worse than I realized. Just cast your gaze on the Prime Minister for Great Britain. Nice enough fellow on a person level, perhaps, but a dunce when it comes to technology and social policy.
In his frantic zeal to quiet the haranguing by the Daily Mail and others to “deal with online porn,” the PM has announced plans to institute mandatory ISP-level porn filtering in addition to other government-imposed measures to keep porn away from minors. But Cameron on Monday also commended ISP TalkTalk’s “great leadership” in this area. TalkTalk, it turns out, has been offering users a voluntary filtering system since 2011 that the BBC just reported is run by a third party outfit called Huawei, whose founder just happens to be a former officer in China's People's Liberation Army.
TalkTalk insists that its “Homesafe” filtering systemis very popular with consumers, but according to the BBC, “The pornography filtering system praised by David Cameron is controlled by the controversial Chinese company Huawei. UK-based employees at the firm are able to decide which sites TalkTalk's net filtering service blocks. Politicians in both the UK and US have raised concerns about alleged close ties between Huawei and the Chinese government.”
The BBC added, “Huawei's position was recently the subject of an Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report. It criticized the lack of ministerial oversight over the firm's rapid expansion in the UK.”
The committee added that while it had found no evidence of misconduct by the Chinese firm, "The alleged links between Huawei and the Chinese State are concerning, as they generate suspicion as to whether Huawei's intentions are strictly commercial or are more political.”
Cameron does not appear to be saying that other ISPs should also use Huawei for their own filtering, but observers are worried about the outsourcing of such a sensitive program that directly impacts what content citizens of Great Britain will be able to access.
“One expert insisted that private companies should not hold power over blacklists, and that the responsibility should lie with an independent group,” reported the BBC, which quoted Dr Martyn Thomas, chair of IT policy panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, as saying, "It needs to be run by an organization accountable to a minister so it can be challenged in Parliament.”
He added, "There's certainly a concern about the process of how a web address gets added to a blacklist—who knows about it, and who has an opportunity to appeal against it," he added.
"You could easily imagine a commercial organization finding itself on that blacklist wrongly, and where they actually lost a lot of web traffic completely silently and suffered commercial damage. The issue is who gets to choose who's on that blocking list, and what accountability do they have?"
According to the BBC, American officials are much less sanguine about anyone working with Huawei, which they consider a threat to national security.
Another issue that may be of concern is the report from the BBC that TalkTalk at first told it that it was Symantec that was maintaining the Homesafe blacklist rather than Huawei, but that was not the case.
“However, Symantec said that while it had been in a joint venture with Huawei to run Homesafe in its early stages, it had not been involved for over a year,” the BBC reported yesterday. “TalkTalk later confirmed it is Huawei that monitors activity, checking requests against its blacklist of over 65 million web addresses, and denying access if there is a match.
“The contents of this list,” it added, “are largely determined by an automated process, but both Huawei and TalkTalk employees are able to add or remove sites independently.”
The world has been put on notice.