The Open Rights Group (ORG) and the LSE Media Policy Project have today published a new report that examines the impact of internet censorship on mobile networks and list some of the legitimate websites that often get unfairly blocked by adult content filters (aka – over-blocking). The study is important because similar measures could soon be forced upon fixed line broadband ISP subscribers.
One of the arguments against a recent demand for ISPs to offer automatic blocks on pornographic sites (i.e. adult content), which emerged earlier this month as part of MP Claire Perry’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection, is that they often block legitimate content too.
The new report, which highlights 10 examples of incorrectly blocked sites between 1st January and 31st March 2012, suggests that “mobile networks in the UK are more likely to suffer from mistaken blocking than deliberate abuse“.
ORG Internet Censorship Report
What is clear is that the blocking extends well beyond adult sexual content. And it is important to recognise that what is ‘appropriate’ is not at all easily defined, leaving many of the reports in a grey area.
There are two separate types of over-blocking. First, there are clearly many misclassifications, where sites are mistakenly placed behind a filter. For example, we found that a site advertising holiday villas in Portugal (‘www.algarve-beach-life.com’) was blocked on Vodafone. This is presumably an error. Likewise, we hope, the block on access to La Quadrature du Net was in error.
Second, there may be disputed classifications, where deciding what material should be considered ‘blockable’ requires a subjective judgement. For example, some networks consider that forums should always be blocked, because of concerns that young people will interact with people they don’t know. However, such a policy could cut off informative education forums, or may restrict young people’s access to sites where they find support from their peers. The subjectiveness of such a decision is especially problematic given that the needs of 16-year-olds are very different from those of 11-year-olds, and that different parents will have different ideas about what is or is not appropriate at different ages.
To highlight this problem the Open Rights Group (ORG) created a simple reporting tool (Blocked.org.uk) that allows people to submit reports of blocks they consider to be inappropriate. It revealed the following results.
10 Examples of Inappropriate Blocks
1. Tor (www.torproject.org). We established that the primary website of this privacy tool (meaning the HTTP version of the Tor Project website, rather than connections to the Tor network) was blocked on at least Vodafone, O2 and Three in January.
2. La Quadrature du Net (www.laquadrature.net/en). The website of this French ‘digital rights’ advocacy group was reported blocked on Orange’s ‘Safeguard’ system on 2nd February. La Quadrature du Net has become one of the focal points for European civil society’s political engagement with an important international treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.12 The block was removed shortly after we publicised the blocking.
3. Shelfappeal.com was reported blocked on 15th February 2012 on Orange. This is a blog that features items that can be placed on a shelf.
4. Septicisle.info was reported on 7th February, and was blocked on Vodafone, Orange, and T-Mobile. This is a personal blog featuring political opinion pieces. It does not contain any adult content.
5. The Vault Bar (www.thevaultbar.co.uk) in London. We established that the home page of this bar was blocked on Vodafone, Orange, and T-Mobile on 6th February.
6. St Margarets Community Website (www.stmgrts.org.uk), is a community information site ‘created by a group of local residents of St Margarets, Middlesex.’ Their ‘mission is simple – help foster a stronger community identity.’ We established it was blocked on Orange and T-Mobile on 8th March.
7. eHow.com is an advice and educational site. It provides tutorials on a wide range of everyday issues, from ‘navigating after-school care’ to ‘small space garden tips’. We established it was blocked on Orange on 9th March.
8. Biased-BBC (www.biased-bbc.blogspot.co.uk) is a site that challenges the BBC’s impartiality. We established it was blocked on O2 and T-Mobile on 5th March. It is classified as a ‘hate site’ by O2’s URL checker
9. Yomaraugusto.com is the home page of a graphic designer, offering a portfolio of his art and design work. This was found to be blocked on Three and Orange on 6th February.
10. Equisitetweets.com allows users to create one-page threads to save or share from conversations on Twitter. This site was blocked on Vodafone, Orange, and T-Mobile on 15th February.
Concern over the issue is often compounded by how the vast majority of UK network operators fail to provide a clear path for appealing unfair blocks. This is an especially critical point to consider if the site(s) happen to be of a commercial nature, such as two leading clothes and underwear retailers (Bravissimo and Figleaves) that were blocked by Vodafone last year (here). It’s apparently ok to have underwear pictures inside clothing stores, where we take our kids, but not online. The National Lottery site has had similar issues, yet TV and print advertising seems fine.
Peter Bradwell of the Open Rights Group and author of the report is now calling for the government to “reject ‘default on’ network filtering” in its new consultation and instead suggests that they should “work to give parents simpler choices and better, device-based tools“. Not that blocking itself works, all such systems are incredibly easy to circumvent, but many people don’t know that.
ORG Mobile Internet Censorship Report (PDF)
UPDATE 18th May 2012
A further 19 sites, including major political party and news websites, have this week been reported as blocked (here).
UPDATE 24th May 2012
Even the Telegraph has now been blocked, which resulted in a fun support call about O2’s somewhat naff filter (here).