The Open Rights Group (ORG) has accused Virgin Media’s mobile division (Virgin Mobile) and Orange UK (EE) of wrongfully blocking access to an online store for engraved gifts (Forever & Eternity) and then, in Virgin Mobile’s case, ignoring the owners requests to have the blanket internet censorship measure lifted.
Both blocks, which were first spotted last month but could have been in-place for a lot longer, are believed to have been imposed through the operators respective adult content filters, which are typically enabled by default (albeit not on some older Orange accounts). But a quick visit to the website in question suggests that the content is broadly harmless and not a danger to Children (http://www.foreverandeternity.co.uk).
Rival operator O2, which doesn’t appear to block the site, operates a useful URL Checker that allows anybody to see how a site has been categorised for its filters. The ORG earlier claimed that this checker categorised the site as “tobacco” (the site does sell “smoking accessories” but this is hardly worthy of a blanket block), although when we checked a moment ago it was now listed more accurately as “Shopping“.
Peter Bradwell, ORG, said:
“Initially [Virgin Mobile] suggested they could remove the block from Mr Thompson’s phone. This of course would do nothing to help everyone else access his site. And the advisor did not know how to get the site removed from the blocking system. They recommended Mr. Thompson get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org. He did so on 10th December last year and is still awaiting a reply.
Mr Thompson discovered the block when he got a new phone last year. Had he not done so he may not have ever challenged the mistake. Also, it is not easy to establish if a business is blocked on other networks. And what if website owners are just curious as to whether mobile filtering systems have decided they are worth blocking? Why is there no way, aside from O2’s URL checker, for people to check this more easily?
This story highlights some of the key issues with default network filtering. For example, the systems tend to block too much. Those who run sites will not necessarily be aware that they are blocked. And it can be hard to correct mistakes and get sites removed from filters when they shouldn’t be there.”
Last year the ORG made headlines after it published several example lists of websites that had apparently been wrongfully blocked by Mobile Broadband operators (here), which was used in the argument against calls for fixed line broadband ISPs to impose similar default censorship measures.
Mistaken blocks do happen but the vast majority of UK network operators that impose such restrictions still fail to provide a clear and or effective path for appeal. We can’t help but wonder how many sales the site in question might have lost as a result of Virgin and Orange’s block. We’ve asked both Virgin and Orange to comment.
UPDATE 5th January 2013
Orange has now responded and agree that the website in question was probably blocked due to the sale of tabacco products, although the site doesn’t appear to sell tabacco itself and thus this remains a deeply questionable move. It does however sell lighters but then so do many other major online stores and they haven’t been blocked.
An Orange Spokesperson said:
“We take our responsibilities around content filtering extremely seriously and have taken steps to ensure all Orange customers under the age of 18 can have content filters applied to their phones. We’ve developed a system called Safeguard, which helps prevent children from accessing 18-rated material and is automatically applied to all new Pay As You Go and Pay Monthly mobiles.
In the case of the web page you refer to, it’s likely that certain key words on the page resulted in the content being filtered.
While we are always careful to protect minors from inappropriate content, we are also committed to assisting in unblocking websites that have been incorrectly classified. If you feel a website has been misclassified, you can contact email@example.com and we will review the content.
It is worth noting that we adhere to the Independent Mobile Classification Board’s guidelines for filtering content that is classified as ‘18’. You can find out more about them here: http://www.imcb.org.uk/.
However, if you want to switch off Orange Safeguard, you can find simple instructions to do so by visiting http://help.orange.co.uk/orangeuk/support/personal/480083/3 .”
Separately a political satire blog (Pride’s Purge) reports that Three UK are now censoring websites that include satirical and critical political content. In a Tweet Three UK confirmed that “We don’t just block adult websites, websites with mature content may also be censored“. Sites blocked in this way can only be entered by going through a process of proving your age which also often involves proving your identity or paying a fee. Pride’s Purge does have the odd semi-swear word on but it’s hardly abundant and is perhaps another example of censorship through mission creep.
Pride’s Purge, which often strongly criticises Chinese investment in British infrastructure, also notes that one of the biggest investors in UK water and other infrastructure is a Chinese billionaire with close ties to Beijing by the name of Li Ka-shing; he also happens to be a primary 3UK shareholder. Hopefully we don’t get blocked too for mentioning that.