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Why We Shouldn’t Block Child Abuse Search Terms

There’s a crime going on. It’s a serious crime. You know the address where it is happening. How do you tackle it? You remove the building from the map so that no-one can witness the crime.

Doesn’t make a lot of sense does it? But that’s the clearest analogy I can find for the government’s proposal that search engines should block terms associated with child abuse images. Stopping people from searching for images of abuse does nothing to tackle that abuse. It might fractionally reduce the chance of a very small number of very sick people from accessing images of the abuse. But is that really helpful? Wouldn’t we rather it were easy to identify abusers rather than forcing them further underground?

If anything the analogy above is generous. Because it’s not just one or two search terms that would need to be blocked to have any impact. Abusers use coded language. Even without this you might have to block many hundreds of terms to functionally limit access. In the process you would be restricting access to lots of legitimate material. In the terms of my physical world analogy the location of the crime can’t be narrowed down to just one location. Instead of removing one building from the map you would need to strip away whole streets and towns.

The cost to society of this is not nil. No problem is best solved by hiding it away from the world. This approach would necessarily limit access to material other than its target through a form of collateral damage censorship.

The government has cut the budget for tackling online child abuse. And it is now trying to put the onus on businesses to make up the shortfall through an unworkable, illogical and downright wrong solution.

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What’s Wrong with Blocking Porn by Default?

Facebook lost. It doesn’t happen often. But recently the company has had to apologise on a number of occasions for removing images of women breastfeeding from the network. Why had it blocked them in the first place?

It has a no nudity policy.

Ignoring the dual standards that Facebook seemed to be operating with regards to some much more graphic images of sex and violence, this story tells you pretty much all you need to know about why any attempt to block porn by default — as the government is proposing — is a bad idea.

Let’s be clear, there are three ways that you can block porn from reaching someone’s computer via the Web.

1. Block specific file types.

Don’t want people seeing naughty videos and pictures? Block all videos and pictures. Sounds daft but lots of companies used to do it. These days it would be hard to argue for.

2. Block specific web addresses.

This was the old approach: block any domain that has inappropriate content on it. This is inherently problematic. There are some pretty filthy tumblr pages, YouTube videos, and yes, despite that policy, Facebook pages. How are you going to block all these without vast amounts of collateral censorship? You can’t. And even if you could, most ten-year-olds know how to use a proxy to get around the blocking. Smart filters can detect proxies but then it’s really just an arms race between the blocking and the means to circumvent it.

3. Block specific content

The smartest and most targeted form of blocking is that which tries to analyse the content you are accessing and determine whether it is acceptable. Even with this level of sophistication though the opportunities for over-blocking are enormous. It’s very hard for a machine to discern the difference between a completely innocent and image-rich site and one full of pornography; to know that one tumblr is innocent and another hardcore.

The web is arguably the greatest tool for spreading education and knowledge that we as a species have ever created. Yes, it is also used to spread some stuff that I wouldn’t like my children to see. But my answer to that is not censorship.

The world has many things to which we don’t want to expose our children. But that’s what parenting is about: we keep them out of traffic and away from certain places. We hold their hands and we teach them until they are old enough to make responsible decisions for themselves. If your child isn’t old enough or responsible enough to use the web unmonitored them don’t let them use the web unmonitored.

This isn’t a perfect solution: for all sorts of reasons many parents won’t monitor their kids’ internet use and educate them appropriately. The ubiquity of connected devices certainly makes it hard to do so consistently.

But it is much better than the risk that we end up with a broadly censored internet governed by the prevailing morals of the leaders of the day. Where we and our kids are stopped from accessing thousands of entirely innocent, valuable sites because of overzealous filters.

So if this ridiculous proposal ever comes in as law, I for one will be turning off the filtering. You shouldn’t be ashamed to do the same.

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HP: You Could Own 3D Printing

On New Year’s Day 2013 I sat in my car and did a couple of telephone interviews with radio stations around the UK. They wanted to know what technology innovations I expected to see this year. It was an interruption to trying to change the glow plugs on my smoky diesel, but a pleasant one.

One of my predictions was that a major printer manufacturer would enter the consumer 3D printing market by the end of the year. The product would be under £400 and available on the high street.

Well, seven months down the line and I haven’t seen any sign of this happening. HP’s partnership with Stratasys is overEpson lost Objet to Stratasys. Canon doesn’t even seem to be looking at the issue. Yet all of these companies — and other major players like Brother — have serious patents in the 3D printing field. The only 3D printer available on the high street is a £700 kit from Maplin — not the type of consumer product I was predicting.

I confess I am baffled.

What is stopping these giants of tech entering the marketplace? Especially HP, a company with a long history of innovation, a massive R&D budget and an incredibly powerful sales and marketing channel.

To put the relative scales into perspective, Stratasys, the current market leader in 3D printing, is valued in total at $3.4bn. That is just a little less than the amount HP invests in research and development every year — $3.6bn in 2012.

The rumours are that HP is a little bit mixed up inside at the moment, and that’s understandable after years of CEO changes and board shakeups, product rollouts and rollbacks. But the company remains a printing powerhouse: it ships a million printers a week netting nearly a billion dollars in revenue each quarter. If it decided to enter the consumer 3D printing market in a big way, it could, quickly and efficiently.

But wait, is there a consumer market for 3D printing?

You obviously can’t value the market, since there are no products out there for the audience I’m proposing: the same consumers who bought inkjet printers en masse ten to fifteen years ago. Can you quantify demand? Well I think that’s hard too: in your classic AIDA sales model people have to be Aware of the opportunity before they can be Interested, demonstrate Desire and ultimately take Action. I still regularly have to explain to people what 3D printing is — smart, informed people too, not backwater technophobes.

But just imagine this: 3D printed Pokemon.

Imagine you could create a game franchise based on collectables that could only be 3D printed. Maybe throw in some puzzle or educational elements to give the kids some leverage over their parents. Back it with a TV series — maybe even just release an animated series direct through YouTube.

Can you imagine the demand that could create, correctly executed?

Revenues for the Pokemon franchise to date were estimated by Le Monde at $30bn. That’s one hell of a marketing tool.

If you can get a 3D printer to market at under the £400 mark with reasonable resolution and the right marketing behind it, I strongly believe you are onto a winner. It’s price comparable with a console and kids don’t seem to have much trouble persuading their parents to shell out for one of those.

It is probably only HP that has the scale, marketing clout and distribution power to do it right. So this is my message to HP: just do it. Redirect some of those massive R&D and marketing budgets and make it happen.

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The Future of Management: Why Facts Are Worthless

In my third post for the Institute of Leadership and Management’s Inspire magazine I have written about facts. Specifically how knowledge is being devalued by the easy access to information provided by computers and the internet. As the information available grows exponentially, so the skills of retrieval, processing, synthesis, critical thinking and creative thought become ever more valuable. Read the full post here:

Tom Cheesewright