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Web Censorship for Dummies

By Annalee Newitz, AlterNet. Posted January 3, 2006.

CP80's website should be subtitled something like 'Conservative Wonks Gone Wild.'

Also by Annalee Newitz

Blog Menace
There's a new threat to free speech, and it comes from the software that lets you read blogs.
Aug 7, 2006

The Nice Rats
My fantasy about super-rodents goes something like this...
Aug 1, 2006

Monstrous Politics
I learned to navigate the cultural meaning of new technologies by analyzing movies about imaginary monsters.
Jul 25, 2006

More stories by Annalee Newitz


Given all the bad porn on the Internet, I guess it's only fair that there should be some truly terrible ideas about stopping porn on the Internet too.

The latest comes from a group called CP80, which sadly isn't a phalanx of uptight androids who enjoy mysteriously homoerotic relationships with mailbox-shaped companions. Instead they're a group pushing something called the "Internet Channel Initiative," a "technology solution" designed to stamp out free speech -- erm, I mean porno -- on the Internet.

CP80's website should be subtitled something like "Conservative Wonks Gone Wild." Dozens of head shots of kids, many bare-shouldered, as if they're shirtless or naked outside the frame, adorn freakishly naive blurts of text about how we can redesign the Internet as a series of "channels," just like television. That way you can put all the porn on one "channel" and ask your ISP to block it. Easy as punch, right? Next we'll turn our mobile phones into microwave ovens! Cell phones broadcast in the microwave spectrum, so all you have to do is turn the volume up really high!

CP80's zany plan involves turning computer ports -- the software-created entryways onto your computer used for different types of communication, such as HTTP, the Web protocol on port 80, and SMTP, the e-mail protocol on port 25 -- into TV channels. In other words, CP80 wants to redefine one of the fundamental building blocks of Internet communication. Instead of using ports to distinguish different types of information transfer protocols, it would use them to distinguish different types of content.

There are several technical problems with this approach -- more on those in a minute -- but CP80 barely hits them before running up against a fundamental policy problem. In the "technical" FAQ, some CP80 wonk on crack writes, "Adult content will be required to be on a specific port (ie. 1101). Providers of content will be required to publish the Adult content on this specific port. They may still maintain their presence on port 80 as long as they do not cross into adult content (this line to be made up by who??? The Government?)"

These would-be censors are so unsure of how anyone can tell the difference between adult and nonadult content they actually use comic-book punctuation (three question marks???) to poke holes in their own theories. Even better, this FAQ is accompanied by a kind of public service Flash movie about how porn creeps into our homes. "The free and open nature of the Internet is becoming a problem," a smooth female voice informs us as the film begins. Then we see a cartoon red tide of porno seeping into a sea of innocent blue computers. The thing is so laughably bad it got passed around various blogs as a parody until somebody figured out it wasn't.

But here's the kicker. CP80 isn't just a bunch of right-wing college students who read Blogging for Dummies and threw up a Web site. It's sponsored by dozens of corporations including Amazon, Apple, Sony, Nokia, Disney, Wal-Mart, and (oddly) Hickory Farms. And it's affiliated with Third Way, a lobbying group with considerable political clout. One of its board members is Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) -- who, if you recall, recently sponsored a bill in the Senate that would have resulted in a 25 percent "porn tax" on Internet pornography.

With backing like this, it's not likely we can just dismiss CP80 with jokes, although certainly that's tempting. Instead we need to remind this group and others like it that you can't solve problems with content on the Web by re-architecting the Internet, just as you can't solve problems with prank phone calls by reengineering the phone system.

Turning ports into channels will cost us. First, it will force ISPs and Web software designers to go into the business of censoring Web sites based on vague rules about content. This is sure to be expensive, as it will mean constantly redesigning networks to reflect ever changing local laws about pornography.

Second, only people with technical knowledge will be able to access completely legal erotic expression. Since most firewalls and browsers block all but a few ports, putting porn on some random high-numbered port like 12045 would mean that most people's computers would be configured by default to block all speech classified as "adult." Unless people learn how to reprogram their firewalls and browsers -- and let's face it, most people won't or can't -- home computers will block the high-numbered porn ports even if ISPs let the porn through.

Using technology to enforce social policy is always a losing proposition -- especially when the social policies are so contested that no communication network, no matter how fungible, could ever be configured to support them.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who figures if they're going to create a special porn port, it should probably be 1337.


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What a technical nightmare!
Posted by: tuff_bird on Jan 3, 2006 2:35 PM   
You correctly observed that most users won't/can't reprogram their firewalls. I have other, technical questions...

1. Who will be in charge of determining how many channels there are and the assignment of port numbers?

2. There are a limited number of ports (65535) available. We are already looking at IP version 6 to increase the number of addresses available. No one ever thought we would run out of ports...... until now.

3. I guess its like Parkinson's law.... demand rises [artificially or not] to meet bandwidth available.

I fervently hope that the powers that be (IETF, etc.) recognize the lunacy of the proposal and stay out of it, and more important, that the tech community can convince Congress to keep out of it.

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» RE: What a technical nightmare! Posted by: alterhead
Desirous of old technology
Posted by: lamar on Jan 3, 2006 3:36 PM   
I can understand the desire many baby-boomers have to take modern technology and understand it through the terms of yesterday's technology. Unfortunately, in this case they don't go far enough. The internet should be redesigned to act more like a vacuum-tube (preferably a 6GK6) based ham radio. That way, when I get hungry, at least there's ham. Under the CP80 proposal, there is no ham.

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» thank you Posted by: dissidentpoet
» RE: Desirous of old technology Posted by: tuff_bird
» Ham? Posted by: nickptar
» RE: Desirous of old technology Posted by: YogiBear
Excellent article
Posted by: Rachel Wayne on Jan 3, 2006 4:41 PM   
That is indeed a silly idea. And while I'm not surprised that it's out there, I am surprised to hear it's got such corporate backing. Let's just hope that people don't buy into the notion that such technology, however implausible, would be used for one thing and one thing only. Plenty have suffered throughout American history because people were that naive.

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control, you must learn control...
Posted by: dissidentpoet on Jan 3, 2006 8:10 PM   
i think the reason that these corporations are even listening to such obviously ridiculous ideas is because they are so concerned with controlling the internet.

because of it's sprawling nature, the web (not the direct line, the web) scares the crap out of them. i know myself that when i saw the ways that the Zapatistas used the internet to raise attention and support i realized that the older ways of looking at information simply no longer apply, and that was over a decade ago. if you spend all your time buying up all the media, indoctrinating all those who control and occupy that media, you are going to be pretty upset when you find that everything you bought and control is going out of date, quickly.

so my guess is they are just trying to make sure they are on the ground floor of ANY ideas that MIGHT have a chance to help them hold onto their monopoly. sooner or later, they figure to hit on someone who actually understands the ways that the future is coming.

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More interesting sponsors
Posted by: chaoslegs on Jan 3, 2006 9:24 PM   
Hooked on Phonics, interesting choice to sponsor the CP80 group.

Petsmart, maybe they are mad at those people that made the Teddy Bear sex calendars. I tried to find it on the net, but I guess I don't have access to the right port :)

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But What if I Want to Channel Porn?
Posted by: jgregorian on Jan 4, 2006 1:14 AM   
Porn is destructive enough that "channelling" it makes sense. Even if you don't feel you are damaged by it, there are enough people who do that channelling seems good. I'm not sure about this particular method, with actual channels, but the objections to the method presented seem to me to be insubstantial.

You say that there aren't enough channels. My limited experience with IP ports (as a desktop support tech) notwithstanding, I think a single channel can be spared for this purpose.

The objection that people who want to restrict porn 'want to change the way the internet works' seems misleading. If someone is trying to change something other than the way people distribute porn, then they are overstepping their bounds - stop them. We want to limit the way people distribute porn without touching the free-ranging nature of the 'net. I think segregating one channel for this content works for our criteria.

Your "end users can't manage a firewall" argument is so obviously wrong it makes me angry. It's clear that the point of having a "porn port" would be that software designers could simply make a button that blocks or unblocks "porn." Control of that button would be allocated the same way current security systems and content guards deal with such things. No one would have to know what a port was, let alone which port they were controlling.

I think the primary difficulty is enforcement.

With enforcement problems come the problem of what content to restrict, but I think this problem is a typical 80/20 problem. 80% of your work will come from 20% of the content - because 80% of the content we're considering is unambiguous. Let's channel the unambiguous part, then we'll treat the more subtle content more subtly, as it deserves.

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» Disingenuous Posted by: nickptar
» Point Taken Posted by: jiminger
Posted by: jgregorian on Jan 4, 2006 1:49 AM   
I think your fears are too far out there and I think porn is destructive enough to enough people that it should be limited in distributrion. Pornography is not a good indicator or cofactor of freedom of speech. You're right that a technology that can sensor internet porn can likely be used to sensor, say, political satire. But censorship is much more a function of ideology and politics than of technology. So, if the technology is misused to sensor political comment, the political climate will be such that protecting porn won't matter. Maybe I can make it clear by example: If Orwell's 1984 comes before government sensors and they don't like it's political themes, it won't then be spared due to its sexual themes. Pornography can even be used by a manipulative government as proof that we have free speech. "What do you mean we sensor your speech, you have all that pornography, don't you?" Basically, pornography is not a good limitus test for freedom of speech, and we need to stop confusing the issue and get on with limiting the availability of porn.

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» RE: Boo! Posted by: IanA
» Umm, yeah. Posted by: jgregorian
» RE: Boo! Posted by: Livemike
Censorship? or a basis for clearer choices?
Posted by: jiminger on Jan 4, 2006 5:24 AM   
While Ms. Newitz has a point about the misuse of a technical paradigm (that of IP ports being used as content selection rather than protocol selection), the complete failure to make proper distinctions is endemic to the rest of the article. Simply pointing a finger and screaming "censorship" seems enough to rally everyone here against a cause or group.

Why would ANYONE supposedly labeled "liberal" (from the Latin root meaning "free") object to a plan that provided the basis for making a clear CHOICE. A plan that categorizes content would provide the information necessary for individuals to make choices. It wouldn't PREVENT anyone from making choices (which is the true nature of censorship); it would make the execution of those choices easier.

Now, given the inability of Annalee Newitz to distinguish between a requirement to supply better information from "censorship," I'm not surprised she would be against categorizing content on the web - which would make for clearer distinctions in Internet content.


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RE: Censorship? or a basis for clearer choices?
Posted by: nickptar on Jan 4, 2006 6:42 AM   
This particular categorization would have to be forced by the government, otherwise it would be worse than useless. It's rarely good when the government tries to force speech to be categorized.

(And yes, pornography is 'speech', in that it is transmitted information. You may not like it but that doesn't justify making an exception in the First Amendment.)

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» Besides the point Posted by: jiminger
» RE: Besides the point Posted by: nickptar
» What is "gray area" about porn?!? Posted by: jgregorian
Point taken
Posted by: jiminger on Jan 4, 2006 7:10 AM   
Point taken .... it's too bad the initial article didn't make the same distinction.

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» RE: Point taken Posted by: IanA
still about control
Posted by: dissidentpoet on Jan 4, 2006 11:36 AM   
whatever our feelings about porn or other expressions of speech (personally, i find having about 8 million cop shows on every day glorifying police brutality and stressing that all suspects are guilty and evil to be pretty obscene, but that's just MY taste), giving someone, anyone, the ability to control how those messages and that speech is distributed is pretty frightening, i think.

the internet does not work, as the article discusses, on the same, straightforward pathway that information traditionally has traveled. using the old ways amounts to controlling and containing the free flow of information. i think most rational people would agree that some ways to insure that people who don't want or might not be old enough to deal with pornography don't get it on their screen every five minutes is a good idea. but that is filtering it for them, not controlling it for everyone.

and yes, it is censorship and control, and just checking on some of the latest articles on this website should be enough to alarm us on what this government might do with the ability to even further control information. remember, during the '80's and the PMRC debacle (strangely forgotten by much of the liberal left during gore's presidential campaign), the punk band the dead kennedys was one of their favorite targets, supposedly for pornographic lyrics and the like. yet, i never heard them singing about sex, mostly singing about how reagan was screwing the country. this type of targeting would continue in the name of "protecting the children."

which is usually a code word for "protecting the powerful."

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» RE: still about control Posted by: IanA
this is scary and you don't really care
Posted by: popsicle67 on Jan 4, 2006 7:43 PM   
I do not hear anybody voicing the real fear this type of legislation should instill in anyone. If any information can be put in one spot and everybody that wants to access that information has to do so in a certain way what is stopping anybody from cutting off access when the mood strikes them?
We are talking about information here, knowledge and information. So what if it's only porn they are proposing to control now, it would be a popular place to start and you might even end up cheering if they cut off access because you find porn offensive. What if I told you any religion could only be practiced on one day of the week and only in one building in town. Furthermore the type of religion you practice has to be proven free of any and all references to any subject
thought to be against public decency. If you do not prove beyond all doubt that you are not worshipping indecently you
will be jailed, all your possessions used to either practice your religion or signify it's importance in your life will be confiscated,and, if in the end, you are found to be worshipping decently, you will have those items returned to you provided they are not questionable or just plain to easy to
steal without notice. If, after a time of trying this new and more easily controllable way of resricting the practice of religion, it is felt that the cost of controlling this abhorrant and
aberrant behavior is too high or just too tiring too administer,
steps will be taken to simply cut off access by either closing the building of worship or destroying it completely. There will of course be no recourse to this decision because,truthfully,
who wants to be caught arguing on the side of religion. It is
an uncomfortable topic to discuss and you don't see too many people saying out loud "I LOVE RELIGION" Oh I know a few will but you wouldn't want to be seen with them and maybe get branded yourself. Now does this seem too far fetched?
Dumber things have happened.

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Posted by: tsallen on Jan 4, 2006 9:41 PM   
There seems to be some fundamental misunderstanding of what "ports" are and how they are used by computers accessing the World Wide Web (WWW) via the IP/TCP protocol (Internet Protocol/Transmission Control Protocol). Ports that are used by transport protocols such as TCP or UDP (User Datagram Protocol) refer to the services accessed by that particular transport protocol (some port numbers are used by both TCP and UDP). As the author of the post alluded, the HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) service uses port 80, the telnet service port 23, the ftp service port 21. They are not used for content differentiation, i.e. you don't tune your computer a specific port like you would tune to a channel on a television to gain access to particular information content. For example, you cannot "tune" to TCP Port 170 to see photo's from "big mama's jugs'" Web Site. TCP Port 170 is reserved for the print-srv service. Content differentiation is gained through the use of Top Level Domain Names in a WWW site name, i.e. .com .gov .mil .edu etc. There are also several relatively new TLD's such as: .biz, .info and .museum There has been discussion of adding an adult-content oriented TLD such as .xxx or .sex which could address some concerns about corralling similar content to specific TLD categories but I feel that enforcement of such schemes is unwieldy. The ignorance of those who do not understand fundamental computer technology never ceases to amaze me, that this "initiative" is being driven in part by self-serving politicians comes as no surprise, especially the participation of one of my state’s senators, Blanche Lincoln (D) (in name only) of Arkansas. They can cynically proclaim to their ignorant constituents about how they are going to "clean-up" the sordid world of the WWW, sigh.

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Ports Misunderstood
Posted by: jgregorian on Jan 4, 2006 10:54 PM   
tsallen - you're right that ports are not currently used to differentiate content (To My Know.). You're right that some content can be ?will be? diff'd by TLDs. But the article talks about BEGINNING to use ports to differentiate content.

That said, it seems clear that we're not much debating the technology used here; we care more about 1) what content is controlled, and 2) how accessible is it for folks who want it? and 3) MOST important - is creating "opt-in" distribution for content X going to affect availability of content Y?

And my answer to question 3) is - I see not much reason to believe making an "opt-in" porn channel is going to affect The Nation, or Mother Jones, or dailykos, or etc. I don't see pornography as a good litmus test of freedom of speech.

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» Precedent Posted by: nickptar
» RE: Ports Misunderstood Posted by: Mrl_Mnd
» RE: Ports Misunderstood Posted by: Livemike
Posted by: mazur on Jan 5, 2006 4:27 AM   
If you really want to protect yourself from porn, why not do the following:

1) create an internet-based list of porn sites, sources etc. like the existing lists of spammers and viruses;
2) disseminate a program which blocks internet content based on this list;
3) close the damn holes in IE through which the porn pops up in the first place (I know it's harder than 1 or 2, so I place it third).

This would be quite cheap and very effective, and no need for enforcement at all.

I'd go even further. I'd offer to write such a program, together with the list management -- you'd get it cheap because I'm from EE. There, jump on it!

[duplicated at my site]

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» Invective v. Reason Posted by: jgregorian
» RE: Invective v. Reason Posted by: IanA
» You Wake Up Posted by: Mrl_Mnd
» RE: You Wake Up Posted by: Livemike
» RE: You Wake Up Posted by: Livemike
More Complicated Than One Might Expect
Posted by: Bipolarpendulum on Jan 9, 2006 1:54 PM   
Unlike many issues (IE, the war in Iraq; Patriot Act Legislation; The Establishment Clause), there truly is no right answer to the question raised by pornography (unlike the aforementioned issues: bad, bad, imperative for the survival of the nation); though this owes more to those that perceive pornography as being inextricably linked with all other facets of free expression than the nature of pornography itself, indefinably ambiguous as it is (never mind the Potter Stewarts of the world, who only, 'know it when they see it').

It's true that, by and large, pornography is exploitive, demeaning, derisive, and perpetuates a profoundly skewed and altogether repugnant image of humanity; serial rapes and murders in many nations have been linked to its ready proliferation (France, for instance); and yet it's inexplicably still deemed a prickly issue- again, not because of the content, but because of the context of legality. Of course, confining it to a single port (which, incidentally, doesn't consider the technological matters of the management of such a huge, single band of programming) is cartoonishly simplistic; but so is the belief that instituting laws to limit its pervasiveness is tantamount to giving Jerry Falwell a ticket to rewrite the Constitution.

Many sage initiatives by very liberal and moderate groups have involved its segregation (just as with proposed hate-speech initiatives, another unavoidable by-product of the First Amendment) from more readily-accessible content, the legal enforcement of age-limitations (as opposed to the childish, 'click here if you're really, really eighteen. Honest, you need to be eighteen or your head will explode and brains and mucous will leak from your ears. But click the naked woman, anyway.'), and perhaps the management of availability as a whole of particularly hideous content (refer to the Bad Tendency Clause for issues regarding that).

Do you see the Establishment Clause overturned in any of those passages? Do you see the First Amendment shredded and tossed into the cesspit that comprises the republican party's contrived sense of morality? No. You see a more responsible effort at legislating content that legitimate, unbiased studies have concluded can be genuinely destructive.

In light of this, I can declare, unflinchingly, that there must exist an array of more cogent and rational initiatives than CP80's endeavors to manage its accessibility.

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Expanding on this idea
Posted by: kkinder on Jan 10, 2006 6:00 PM   
This is a great idea.

But why stop at just three new ports for every protocol? We can do better. Any programmer is aware of the concept of a bit-wise or, a little bit of binary logic that lets you store several true/false flags in one integer value. Here's a quick explanation of how it works:

Each true/false "flag" has a number, and those numbers double with each value starting at one. For example, you could have the following flags for objectionable content available over the Internet: (1) Homosexual content; (2) Violent content; (4) Content containing the words "happy holidays"; (8) Scientific information on evolution or pre-history. Every combination of adding these numbers (1,2,4,8) will result in a unique number. Through a little bit of binary logic, you can add up the applicable flags and get the values out later. (See wikipedia's bitwise article for a technical explanation.)

This would provide a unique port number for every possible combination of offensive categories. For example, let's say you have a website about violent pre-history. You add up the flags to get the port number offset: 2+8=10. Port 10. Bingo! Every site on port 10 contains violent content about pre-history. A blog by a gay person who uses the phrase "happy holidays" would be on port 5. AlterNet? You better believe AlterNet'll be on port 15. Port 0 would be G-rated content (although I'm not sure you can bind to port 0 -- but that's outside the scope of this discussion.)

Add in more flags for protocols and you have a scientific and pro-family way of distinguishing all Internet content. And best of all, it's scalable. Under this system, each protocol needs only 16 ports (maybe 32 if we give China a "political dissent" flag), thus leaving room for over 2,000 Internet port-level protocols.


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» RE: xpanding on this idea Posted by: Livemike
Corporate sponsors?
Posted by: PeteKnife on Jan 15, 2006 10:11 AM   
Those aren't sponsors. CP80 just has affiliate accounts with them.

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