Twisting the facts to fit the story – child porn nonsense

“Some 35,000 attempts to access child pornography websites are blocked in Britain every day, figures have revealed,” screeches the Daily Mail this morning.
 The Times says the same, that “the number of attempts to access websites hosting child pornography have trebled in the past 18 months”.

And the BBC. And the Independent. And the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning. Oh, and the Scotsman. The Sun offers: “Shocking new figures show UK perverts are trying to access child porn websites 35,000 times a day.” And so on and so forth.

The only problem with this scaremongering story is that it is total bollocks. In fact, it is worse than that. It is a carefully engineered twisting of figures and facts to provide a dramatic story. Maybe that's just par for the course, but when you are talking about child pornography and building up an image of the Internet as a dangerous, lawless place, you would think media outlets like the BBC, Independent and Times would be a little more careful.

The facts

Here are the facts: BT runs a program it calls “Cleanfeed”. This programme consists of blocking access to a list of websites provided to its by the Internet Watch Foundation. Anyone using BT as an Internet service provider will not be allowed to visit these sites, and BT keeps records of how often it blocks access.

BT released figures yesterday that showed Cleanfeed had picked up four million hits over the past four months. This has been reported as 35,000 attempts to access child porn site per day.

First of all, the figure from these stats is 33,000, not 35,000. I raise that only because last time we had this exact same child porn panic (July 2004), using BT's Cleanfeed figures, BT Retail head Pierre Danon claimed 20,000 hits a day, when in fact the true figure was 10,000 a day.

But that is completely inconsequential when you ask the question: what counts as a “hit”? Internet statistics have been fudged for years, leading to the creation of broadly accepted definitions.

Definitions

A “hit” – is a single request for a piece of information from a web page – be that a picture, the text, a piece of code, whatever. As such a single web page that you view can account for a number of hits. In fact, because of how web design has developed, you tend to get, on average, 10 hits per actual page that you look at on the screen. However, if it comes to a webpage exclusively set up to show pictures, you get very easily get anywhere from 30 to 100 hits per page.

A page, one whole formed page, regardless of hits is called a “page impression”. This term was created because hits were so easily fudged – you only have to add an invisible one-pixel by one-pixel image on a page, and you get an extra hit. If advertisers are paying per hit you therefore make a whole lot more money doing nothing at all.

And then there are “unique users”. This is the best measure of how popular a website is because it measures the number of actual people that visit the website. After all, if you have 1,000 page impressions a day, you could have 1,000 people looking at one page, or 10 people looking at 100 pages. The different is clearly significant.

The figures

So what are BT's results? Well, we don't know, because BT refuses to tell anyone what its figures relate to. In fact, the trade group representing the UK's Internet service providers (ISPA) actually asked BT to explain its figures last time this controversy came around because it was very uncertain that they were representing what everyone say they were.

This is what the ISPA said in a public letter: “[The] ISPA feels caution is needed with the information and statistics so far available on Cleanfeed. It is very difficult to comment on the statistics reported by BT regarding Cleanfeed as BT has not passed the data to ISPA. At present there seems to be a significant disparity in the statistics that are being reported.”

BT responded the next day and, er, refused to give any details about the Cleanfeed stats. Although it did say that the figures “include both deliberate and accidental attempts to access blocked sites as well as multiple attempts”. So it certainly isn't monitoring people – it is measuring individual attempts to reach single pieces of information held on banned websites.

An attempt to look at one picture – on a website set up with the sole attention of providing images – is a hit.

BT uses the word “hits”. Since BT is the biggest ISP in the country, we can expect that it knows the difference between hits, page impressions and unique users.
 The fact that the media choses to misrepresent this word as “attempts” is the first example of a conscious effort to twist the facts.

Some calculations

So, we have 33,000 hits a day. Let's assume a figure of 50 hits per page. That equates to 660 page impressions a day. That's still alot of pages you say. Yes, except for the fact that this blog alone averages over 2,000 page impressions a day.

I can tell you that those 2,000 page impressions equate to 400 people. So assuming that the people click on this site as the same rate as someone looking frantically for child pornography – which is quite obviously not going to be true – that means that 130 BT customers a day try to find child porn. BT has over three million customers.

There are people looking for child porn out there, and you can assume that if they are willing to look for it, they will search extensively. So I think you can safely assume that there are approximately 20 people using BT that are looking for child porn.

Which means that across the UK, there are probably 150 people trying to access child porn on any every given day, out of a total population of 60 million. Suddenly it doesn't seem quite so terrifying, does it?

Knowing misrepresentation

But the newspapers know this – or at least they would do if they had researched the story for anything more than five minutes – which we must assume they do. So there is a willful intention on their part to create a misleading story. You will also note that none of the stories including any balancing statement from the ISPA – the largest authority on such matters in the UK.

But, you say, the newspapers main point is that the Cleanfeed figures have trebled in the past 18 months – so while it may be a small problem, it is getting worse.

This is, yet again, completely misleading. Cleanfeed works from a list provided by the Internet Watch Foundation. The IWF admits to having at least doubled the number of sites on its list in the past year. It does not say by what percentage that list has increased since the list was first drawn up and the figures first released in June 2004. But it is a fair bet that there was a rapid increase at the start of the project.

So the blocked hits have trepled. By what degree have the number of sites increased though? Trepled? Or Quadrupled? If you block more websites, it is perfectly obvious that the number of blocks you put on is going to increase.

The real story

The real story is that the UK has the strongest anti-child porn system and laws in the world. That's a fact. The actual situation is that there is now almost no child porn at all stored on UK computers, that the number of people attempting to access it anywhere on the Internet from this country is tiny, and that figure is most likely going down.

So how come the media reports point to the exact opposite of the situation? How come the very, very clear implication is that there are 35,000 individuals attempting to download child pornography every day in the UK?

How come the media has knowingly ignored the whole furore that blew up last time BT Cleanfeed figures were misrepresented?

Because it is a better story if you ignore all the facts. Is it a story that should be written? No. Because it is spreading fear, and it is building an entirely false picture in people's minds.

And I absolutely guarantee you that this “huge problem” we have with child porn in the UK will be used by politicians is the not-too-distant future to justify new powers and/or laws that will allow the state to encroach on our right to review the Internet without fear of being monitored.

1 Response to “Twisting the facts to fit the story – child porn nonsense”


  • Hi Kieren,

    Just came across this article (a bit late I know) and I hope you don’t mind but I have put the link on another web site. Quite interesting don’t you think that main stream printed media have not taken up on the news on the now indisputable facts that ‘Operation Ore’ was also based upon bollocks. Not surprising when you consider the information originated from the U.S, which is a short term for useless.

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