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UK ISP Filters Criticised for Blocking Lots of Safe and Legal Websites

Friday, October 13th, 2017 (12:28 pm) - Score 4,418

The Open Rights Group‏ (ORG) has this week helped to highlight how some of the UK’s biggest broadband ISPs are continuing to allow their Parental Control filters to block masses of innocent websites, often for seemingly bogus reasons (e.g. blocking a small gardening business for “pornography“).

Over the past few years all of the country’s largest ISPs (BT, Virgin Media, Sky Broadband, TalkTalk etc.), under pressure from the Government, have introduced new network-level filtering systems that can optionally be enabled by subscribers. Some providers, such as Sky Broadband, even enable these by default.

The intention has always been to help make the internet a safer place for children and some of the filtering systems can even target nasty phishing or malware-infected sites. Millions of broadband customers have now enabled such a service and it’s clearly useful, although there are a few big caveats.

Sadly such filters can be unreliable and often catch legitimate websites through errors, such as incorrect categorisation. Last year ISPreview.co.uk saw first-hand just how frustrating this can be when Sky wrongfully blocked our own site under their “Malware” category (here), which is something that we wouldn’t even have noticed had our readers not flagged it up.

Unfortunately the sheer size of the internet makes it very difficult to accurately gauge the scale of incorrect blocking. There are over 1 billion websites in the world today and so it’s unlikely that humans are manually verifying all of those on a regular basis (cost-effective automation will be used to categorise many sites and that can result in errors).

However the Open Rights Group have, for the past couple of years, been trying to keep tabs on the problem via Blocked.org.uk, which encourages people to report when a website is being blocked by their ISP or mobile operator. This week supporters of the group have been highlighting, via social media, just a tiny fraction of the many questionable blocks that have been spotted so far.

Possible Examples of Wrongful Blocks

* http://www.basingstokebells.org.uk

A website that seems to focus on the ringing of church bells in Basingstoke, which is blocked by both BT’s Light and Strict filters for an unknown reason (here).

* http://www.cuanmor.co.uk

A website for a restaurant in Oban, which is blocked by BT’s Light filter and TalkTalk’s Kidsafe filter due to being categorised as “alcohol” (bit harsh to ban a site that doesn’t sell alcohol, it’s just an information page that allows you to book a table).

* http://mattsgardenservices.co.uk

A website that.. well you get the picture from the name. Never the less it’s blocked by Sky Broadband’s filter for being “Pornography”. We don’t know whether that’s due to the fact that naughty plants never seem to stop pollinating with each other or perhaps there was a picture of the odd hoe.

* http://www.vinesmith.com

Granted it’s a website for a vineyard consultancy, but are we really saying that this is a threat to children? Blocked by TalkTalk for “Alcohol“. Perish the thought that the little scamps might get it into their heads to hire a consultancy firm and start their own vineyard. Horrific stuff.

Unfortunately it doesn’t end there, just have a little sift through the websites related to Law, Florists and Chess, which are all classed as blocked by one or more providers, and see for yourselves how many of those are warranted or not. Many of those clearly are no risk to young eyes (although a lot obviously are) and a few are downright comical.

We should point out that the blocked.org.uk list isn’t real-time and so it’s likely that some of those listed may have already been removed (certainly they will after this article is posted), but the problem continues. One of the biggest issues is that most of those legitimate sites that do get blocked will never be informed and that could have real repercussions, especially for smaller businesses.

Similarly it’s not uncommon for sites that offer advice or support, such as when trying to recover from things like self-harm or drug addiction, to be automatically blocked. Sadly dumb automation and even humans can be terrible at reading context and so talking about narcotics or self-harm, even in a safe way, is often just as likely to get your site censored as a site that directly promotes violence or nudity.

The news about overzealous filtering might not be quite so frequent today, but the underlying problem hasn’t gone away. Meanwhile it remains easy to circumvent such filtering systems and indeed children often know best how to do that.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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16 Responses
  1. Mrs Slocombe says:

    Better get used to it because it will only get worse as more are forced to filter.

    ISP’s don’t deliberately go out of their way to filter legitimate sights, it’s the unintended consequence that arises from political insistence that society needs to be morally protected for their own safety by restricting what you can and cannot see.

    The country and it’s people have had lots of opportunities to stop us getting to this point on numerous occasions but apathy won the day in the end and continues too.

    You don’t like it, do something about it but don’t moan when your local church wine tasting group gets blocked – it’s likely those same church goers complained to their MP in the first place and now face the reality of their misguided naivety.

  2. wirelesspacman says:

    I wonder how long it will be before some company takes one or more of the large ISPs to court over “illegally” blocking access to their websites?

    1. Joe says:

      Sadly any company with the funds to pursue legal action is probably big enough to get the filter removed by the ISP without legal action.

    2. timeless says:

      what about those who arent big enough? its small companies/sites that will suffer if they find their way on the list for a random word which gets them censored.

  3. hmmm says:

    Apathy won the day AS Long as they got XFACTOR 52 ” TV FACEACHE AND TWATTER

    there is no hope

  4. Mike says:

    It wasn’t apathy, this is being rolled out world wide, it’s being imposed, democracy gives the false impression of choice.

    You should all be using a VPN now anyways so this shouldn’t be an issue.

    1. timeless says:

      l disagree, in general when it comes to politics people in general are apathetic and dont seem to care any more resigning themselves to current leadership.

      however many, many lazy parents out there seem to think its someone elses job to keep an eye on their childrens online activity, kids should never have unsupervised net access which means computers in bedrooms etc where they cannot be kept an eye on are asking for their children to view adult material.. after all while filters may catch allot there are both ways around them and many sites that still arent blocked.

  5. dragoneast says:

    Nothing new. Legitimate activities have always fallen foul of over-enthusiastic regulation and suspicion. It’s all grist to the mill of the chattering classes (basically everyone who resorts to sites like this), looking for trouble, giving them something to talk about. Shockingly, I know; there is actually life off-line. Most of it.

  6. timeless says:

    lets face it, eventually it will be used to censor things the government dont wish ppl to see, like criticism etc.

    however the only reason this sounds good to ppl is there are allot of lazy parents out there who just cant be bothered to make any attempt at keeping an eye on what their kids do online, they treat it like a daycare, its like no parent would let their child walk into adult shops etc, yet why do they call it someone elses job to stop them doing the same online.

    1. James Harkin says:

      Remember Cameron’s “pornwall” in 2013? … http://www.wired.co.uk/article/pornwall also included “esoteric material”, which is what they really want to block. What is their version of “esoteric material”? Everything that goes against their sanitized version of everything? 🙁

    2. timeless says:

      thats the real question isnt it, whenever they start talking about porn filters on the news l just cant believe that the Tories plans were to block children from accessing adult content.

      l personally believe its more about controlling information, because with a filtering system in place its not so far fetched that they could block legitimate criticism, after all we already know these filters block legitimate sites.

  7. Elle says:

    Yet none of them block Twitter which offers unrestricted access to hard core pornography

  8. PaulM says:

    “* http://www.basingstokebells.org.uk

    A website that seems to focus on the ringing of church bells in Basingstoke, which is blocked by both BT’s Light and Strict filters for an unknown reason”

    Reason could be the bell ends DO NOT realise there are different types of bell ends!

  9. John Miles says:

    With ‘over 1 billion websites’ out there it’s hardly surprising that the occasional one gets blocked incorrectly. In reality I’ve been running with the Sky parental filter on for 18 months and don’t think I’ve ever encountered an incorrectly blocked site. It’s stopped a few inadvertent malware downloads, but the rest of the time you don’t know its on.

    1. Web Dude says:

      I guess it just depends on the variety of sites you view, but the fact that various innocent sites are getting blocked is bad news for those sites, whether they be for a business or hobbyist or interest group.

      Biggest problem I see is that the individual site owner knows nothing about being blocked, and unless someone has two different ways to reach them, one blocked and one not, it’s unlikely the visitor will know they have been INCORRECTLY blocked.

      While the domain name might hint at an error, if the user cannot see the content, they could assume it is blocked for good reason. Some with an enquiring mind might have a VPN or use a mobile (say) as a way to bypass the ISP blocking access.

      It’s awkward for a user to know what caused the problem, in a similar way to a remote router somewhere being badly configured. I develop websites and business solutions and from time to time have had problems accessing websites and servers in different locations (US, Canada, etc) and in most instances after reporting a router fault have had it fixed by tech support.

      Recently found I could not access a server for a hosting firm (their management services, password changes, billing etc) and had both ISP and hosting company pointing fingers at the other for causing a problem (while I believe there’s a routing problem neither of them can find). In this case I was forced to switch company (luckily only had a 3 month trial and hadn’t paid for 36 months on their hosting, but it just goes to show how a networking problem could be difficult to locate and if blocking is added into the picture, the average user may not bother chasing why they cannot connect… I had good reasons but after 6 weeks gave up as the companies involved were getting no closer to fixing it).

  10. So it’s not okay for our “little darlings” to see any human flesh above the knee or below the neckline on a computer, for fear of contaminating their little snowy-white minds, but it’s quite alright for television to show programs such as Game of Thrones and Mrs Brown’s Boys – and it’s no good sending them upstairs so they can’t watch the immense amount of foul language, fornication, and regular beheading on the TV sets in their bedrooms! And to hear the foul language shouted by the 11 and 12 year old schoolkids (male and female) as they walk past my house on their way home from school – it’s me that’s getting corrupted! It’s up to the receiver to censor what’s being watched – not the broadcaster.

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