The problem with porn filters

How one company got blocked.

I'm the manager of the website for Coadec, www.coadec.com. We are an organisation that discusses issues facing tech startups and entrepreneurs building digital businesses. These can be issues such as broadband infrastructure, access to finance, intellectual property, and website blocking measures, amongst others. In May we found out that according to Orange's filters, we were unsuitable for children, and for anybody without a credit card to prove their age, and therefore our website was, ironically, blocked.

Number 10 and the Chancellor see the potential of digital startups to contribute to some much needed growth in the UK economy, and have stated many times their desire to make “the UK the best place in the world to start, run and grow a high tech company”. However there has been a worrying trend from a number of departments to announce potential measures affecting Internet communications that risks running counter to that aim.

One of the most recent moves has been the launch of a consultation by the Department for Education into proposals by Claire Perry MP, suggesting that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) providing broadband connections to homes, universities, and businesses should implement a system for default blocking of "adult content", like those seen on mobile Internet connections, with users having to call and "opt-in" to receive anything that has been blocked by the filters.

These filters are applied to "adult material" and in order to have a block removed from your phone you must contact the mobile provider and provide credit card details as proof you are over 18 in order for it to be removed. But these blocks are not the silver bullet their proponents claim they are. Just as when you search for terms on a search engine, some results are included that are not what you were looking for, so filters blocking content are not always accurate. Mistakes will occur and sites which do not contain adult content will inadvertently be blocked and they currently have no way of finding out other than serendipitously.

Our site does not contain any adult content, does not host a forum, and any comments made on blog posts are moderated and must obtain approval before being posted on our site. So it was disturbing to hear from one of our supporters that our website had been blocked on their phone as only being suitable for people over the age of 18. But we know that mistakes happen, so we sought to contact Orange to see if this was a technical error, and check whether they'd meant to block our site, and if so, identify why the site had been blocked and see if it was possible to get the classification of the site reviewed.

If you want to read the painstaking process we had to go through to get Coadec's site removed from default blocks, you can read the bullets below. This situation is not unique to Orange. Only one mobile provider, O2, has an automated check and redress system in place which, while not ideal (you do not get any communications of whether you submission is successful), is far more efficient than the actions we had to take here.

  • Wednesday evening we consulted the Orange site discussing Safeguard, but it is aimed at individuals so couldn't help us.
  • Thursday morning (9am) we called the Orange helpdesk but they were unsure where to direct our call and said they could not help because we were not Orange customers.
  • We contacted @OrangeHelpers on Twitter who said they could not check if the site was blocked and we would have to find somebody with a Safeguard enabled Orange phone to check.
  • The Twitter account operator eventually checked on their phone and discovered the site was indeed blocked but could not tell us why or how to address it. They then said that we would need to contact the Independent Mobile Classification Body (IMCB) to review this.
  • The IMCB said their jurisdiction ends at commercial content (photos, videos, and songs that are sold), they are not responsible for 3G access to websites. They briefed mobile operators on this some time ago but the operators were still directing individuals to them. They advised us to speak to Orange’s Third Party Services department.
  • Orange's Third Party Service number was out of service.
  • We went back to Twitter and Orange asked us to contact their customer complaints department. We informed them we are not a customer and asked if they could advise who best to contact.
  • Waiting on a response from the Twitter account we rang the customer complaints number anyway. This took us through a number of automated steps we couldn't complete as it was designed for Orange customers. We spoke to a customer service representative, and after explaining repeatedly we weren’t calling as a customer, we were advised we needed to write a letter (or a fax) to the Correspondence Department.
  • Orange on Twitter subsequently responded at 5:30pm informing us that they had fed this back to see if the classification can be reviewed and would update us.
  • Through our work on Internet communications policy, we know an individual who works in Everything Everywhere's Government Affairs department, and so relayed the situation to them, and they were able to get the blocks lifted 48 hours later, on Friday evening.

As a group that argues against default blocking measures, despite the unique irony in this situation, we know that we're not unique in being mistakenly blocked by filters. The Open Rights Group and the LSE Media Policy Project co-published a report on mobile filtering, and they found over-blocking, a lack of transparency and problems correcting mistakes to be rife. Default blocking inadvertently blocks perfectly legal and legitimate businesses and organisations, like ours, and a reporting and redress process that is complicated, and lengthy, could seriously inhibit a business who generates revenue through their site.

There are clearly problems with the default blocks that are in place on mobile networks, particularly around reporting and redress process. While those who propose the default blocks think that accidentally blocking access to sites like ours is a price worth paying, and taking the choice away from parents and giving it to ISPs, applying similar style default blocks to broadband connections would present a significant threat to the UK's fundamental ability to communicate, and future investment in British businesses who rely upon the Internet to grow.

Access denied. Photograph: Getty Images

Sara Kelly is the Policy and Development Manager for the Coalition for a Digital Economy.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times