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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution