Westminster

The House of Commons Parliamentary network is recording thousands of attempts to reach pornographic websites each month by MPs, Lords and parliamentary staff, a Freedom of Information (FoI) request has discovered.

According to figures published by the Huffington Post UK, in the 12 months to July 2013 the network’s system filtered nearly 300,000 such requests, with an extraordinary peak of 115,000 in November 2012 alone.

There were huge variations in the number reported for some months – only 15 in February 2013 for instance – which suggests that some of the fluctuation is probably explained by the way the unidentified filtering software records accesses rather than realtime usage.

The House of Commons was not willing to specify which system it is using and so it’s impossible to speculate on the definition of porn it might be applying. Commercial systems typically use a mixture of industry block lists and vendor-specific collections; one of the most extensive is reckoned to be Huawei’s ISP-level system used by Talk Talk as a model for Prime Minister David Cameron’s controversial UK ‘pornwall’.

It’s also not clear whether the system employed actually blocks the accesses it records or simply notes that they have happened. A spokeswoman for the House of Commons told the Huffington Post that the numbers could have been inflated by pop-ups, embedded videos and links, and refreshes.

Furthermore, "we are not going to restrict Parliamentarians' ability to carry out research," the spokeswoman said.

Research is a valid defence, the exception being whether a site being accessed breaches legality or downloads (including malware) are involved. There are also other types of problem content such as extremist websites MPs and their staff can reasonably claim to be within their remit to visit.

More advanced network monitoring systems record which sites are being visited at an individual level, using that surveillance as a deterrent against abuses. That is one dimension missing from the figures, which reveal the number of accesses but not who made them.