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The problem with porn filters

How one company got blocked.

Access denied. Photograph: Getty Images

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.