Porn in Parliament: a problem with people or software?

House of Commons chamber
There were 350,000 visits to sites logged as porn in 2013 versus 250,000 in 2014 © Flickr/US Department of State

Were there really 250,000 visits to porn sites in Parliament last year?

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There were almost 250,000 attempts to visit websites classed as pornographic on Parliament’s network last year, according to a Freedom of Information response out this week.

The story, which the Express called ‘astonishing’, is just the latest in a series over many years claiming to uncover a mass outbreak of porn-watching in Westminster, with help from campaign group the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

The Express said it uncovered 350,000 such ‘shocking’ visits in 2013. That same year, the Huffington Post published a story claiming there had been about 25,000 visits to porn sites each month from May 2012 until then.

The question that has not been asked is: what is behind this apparent epidemic of online vice?

Unfortunately it may have a lot more to do with web filtering software than naughty MPs and Lords.

Incorrectly labelling non-explicit sites as ‘porn’ is “typical of automated filtering”, web development expert Emma Jane Hogbin Westby explained on Twitter.

“Typically anything naked can be incorrectly classified, e.g. breast feeding,” she said.

There are about 5,000 Parliamentary passholders, according to public sector web specialist Alex Blandford, who worked in Parliament’s digital team.

“As a visitor on their visitor WiFi will quickly find out, their blocking software classes legitimate journalism sites like Vice as porn, one assumes due to bad keyword blocking. Indeed, the judgement of ‘porniness’ is made by software rather than people, so is pretty fallible,” he explained.

ComputerworldUK asked Parliament which provider and which software it uses for web filtering, but a spokeswoman said “in common with other higher profile public bodies we will not disclose details of our arrangements for ICT security”.

She said that there is a process for sites to be assessed and unblocked at the request of users and insisted “we do not censor websites purely on the grounds of taste”.

However the issue is not just confined to the Palace of Westminster. ‘Over-blocking’ is a common problem among internet service providers, according to Tim Dobson, community manager at Bytemark Hosting.

When Open Rights Group tested the 100,000 most popular websites they found almost one in five are blocked by one filter or another, including animal charities, a Porsche brokerage and a Girl Guides branch.

“Basically 'the filtering software isn't very good' - what's the difference between a soft porn website and the Daily Mail? It's mainly a question of social context. What's the difference between Urban Dictionary and a site with lots of swearing because it has the scripts of "The Thick Of It" on it?” Dobson said.

Filtering software just as often blocks things you need to access for your job as explicit content, he added.

“What if civil servants, in their line of work, encounter language they don't know... but is explained only on Urban Dictionary's site? It's an interesting question,” Dobson said.

So it seems likely the vast majority – though admittedly not all – of the ‘porn visits’ are in fact just the result of overzealous blocking software.

However the FOI does raise one small but important question: are web filters in Parliament stopping people – say, MPs’ researchers - from doing their jobs?

“The bit that is worrying is banning things like Urban Dictionary - how is that okay?” Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, said.

“And also the fact that Parliament won't publish their "banned" sites list - shouldn't we know what MPs are told they shouldn't be reading?”

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