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.

Getty
Show Hide image

After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.