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UK ISP TalkTalk Accused of Abusing HomeSafe Service to Censor News Website

Posted: 12th May, 2011 By: MarkJ
talktalk uk internet censorshiptalktalk uk internet isp privacy concernBroadband ISP TalkTalk UK has found itself in hot water again after it was discovered that the providers new and already controversial network level broadband internet security service, HomeSafe, was found to block (censor) a seemingly legitimate news and information website called TorrentFreak.com.

HomeSafe, which launched on Monday as a free and crucially optional service to the ISPs subscribers, is designed to automatically protect customers and their children from bad websites (e.g. pornography) via three different solutions.
TalkTalk HomeSafe Solutions

Virus Alerts – a simple click will enable an alert system which blocks web pages infected with any kind of malware, to protect customers’ computers and other devices.

KidsSafe parental controls – allows the TalkTalk account holder to block the content they don’t want to be accessed through their connection, such as pornography, violence and/or gambling.

Homework Time – this allows parents to block social networking sites like Facebook and online gaming which are common sources of distraction for school children from their homework.
However, aside from the already significant controversy over how the service intercepts its own customers URL (website) visits (apparently regardless of whether or not you have opted-in to use HomeSafe - more on that here), it was soon discovered that the system also blocked "filesharing" websites too (e.g. The Pirate Bay and ISOhunt).

In fairness we can understand this. Many, but not all, P2P BitTorrent indexes not only contain links to "illegal" copyright content but also to pornography and other adult material. Likewise many such sites also contain adult advertising.

However, TorrentFreak is not even remotely a BitTorrent (P2P) index. It is a highly recognised site that frequently publishes useful journalism / news on the wider copyright and P2P industry. Certainly it does contain links to "filesharing" website domains, but perhaps no more so than us, the BBC or any newspaper sites when covering related stories.

TalkTalk Statement to ISPreview.co.uk (TorrentFreak's Block)

"The definition for the filesharing category in HomeSafe is 'websites that provide or promote filesharing applications'. While we understand TorrentFreak provides news, it also has a number of links on its site promoting filesharing applications, which is why it is blocked if the filesharing category is selected.

However it is important to emphasise that HomeSafe is an entirely voluntary product offered free of charge to our customers: they can choose whether or not they want to use it, and can customise it as appropriate for their home."

Indeed the actual blocking itself, which any modern IT aware child could easily circumvent by using a proxy or VPN, is optional and that's a crucial distinction. However, we suspect that many of those who enable it would not expect the restrictions to be quite so aggressive.

Likewise TalkTalk's description of filesharing as including any "websites that provide or promote filesharing applications" seems unnecessarily broad. By that definition websites such as Google (they're definitely guilty), About.com, Lifehacker and Cnet's Download.com should also be blocked, yet they aren't. In fact why not block the BBC too as many of their filesharing related articles have included identical links to BitTorrent clients and indexes?

Similarly TalkTalk doesn't appear to define what a "filesharing" website actually is. In the broadest possible description, every single website in the world shares files. Steam and World of Warcraft also promote and use legal video game download services, which are underpinned by a P2P filesharing client.

TorrentFreak's Founder, Enigmax, told ISPreview.co.uk:

"TorrentFreak has linked to sites that offer file-sharing software, such as BitTorrent Inc's uTorrent.com, a site which is also blocked by TalkTalk. What is the point of blocking us and uTorrent.com?

I can't imagine for one second that TalkTalk sat down in their office and compiled a list of file-sharing related sites on their own. They will have bought this functionality from a 3rd party company and from our experience they offer no level of transparency whatsoever. In our experience they are afraid to publish their block lists and for child abuse sites I couldn't agree with them more.

But when genuine news resources are blocked too - and in our case a site which regularly publishes educational articles on the perils of sharing copyright works - they are overstepping the mark.

We have to ask what the point of this filtering is. I would venture that parents who choose to block with the filesharing element of HomeSafe, do so to stop their children distributing copyright files, not to stop them reading news.

TalkTalk say that HomeSafe is voluntary, but so are the meetings currently going on with ISPs and the entertainment industries in the UK with a view to the blocking of allegedly infringing sites. We worry about mission creep here too."

Internet censorship is certainly a complicated issue and this situation perhaps highlights how good intentions can be corrupted through questionable judgement. Could we or other news sites, by innocently linking to TorrentFreak.com in our own article, potentially also be at risk of backdoor censorship? Where do you draw the line? The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) warned about similar problems last year (here).

Meanwhile TorrentFreak, which informs us that they "always had good relationships with TalkTalk and we have supported their stance in respect of their opposition to elements of the Digital Economy Act", is left to borrow one of TalkTalk's own campaign phrases by pleading with the ISP.. "Don't Disconnect Us!".
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