[Update 10th January 2013] The blocks on the website has now been removed. Whilst this is good news, we hope it won't take a blog from Open Rights Group to resolve all cases of over-blocking.]
This morning we had another report of an incorrect block on mobile networks, via our website www.blocked.org.uk. This time the website is http://www.foreverandeternity.co.uk/. The site offers personalised, engraved gifts. It does not seem to contain any 'adult' material.
This is an online shop - meaning the block was affecting their ability to sell their products. The block was spotted and reported to Virgin Mobile in early December. The problem has not yet been fixed. So the block was in effect over Christmas, and will have affected the site's ability to reach their market in one of the more important retail periods of the year.
We have so far confirmed the site is blocked on Virgin Mobile and Orange. We also checked on O2's handy URL checker, and the site is classified as 'tobacco' (although the site is not blocked on O2's default blocking service.)
One of the categories of products sold by the site is "smoking accessories" - meaning engraved lighters, cigar cutters and so on. So it seems likely that the filtering systems that Virgin and Orange use picked up on those words and concluded the site is unsuitable for under 18s.
The report of the block was submitted to us by the owner of the website David Thompson this morning. When we followed this up, Mr Thompson told us that he had tried to report the mistake to Virgin (as a Virgin customer) in early December but had no success yet sorting out the problem.
The initial response from the advisor at Virgin seems to echo what we found last year for our mobile Internet censorship report (see the appendix in our our report.)
Initially they suggested they could remove the block from Mr Thompson's phone. This of course would do nothing to help everyone else access his site. And the advisor did not know how to get the site removed from the blocking system. They recommended Mr. Thompson get in touch with email@example.com. He did so on 10th December last year and is still awaiting a reply.
Mr Thompson discovered the block when he got a new phone last year. Had he not done so he may not have ever challenged the mistake. Also, it is not easy to establish if a business is blocked on other networks. And what if website owners are just curious as to whether mobile filtering systems have decided they are worth blocking? Why is there no way, aside from O2's URL checker, for people to check this more easily?
This story highlights some of the key issues with default network filtering. For example, the systems tend to block too much. Those who run sites will not necessarily be aware that they are blocked. And it can be hard to correct mistakes and get sites removed from filters when they shouldn't be there.
We have contacted Virgin and Orange about the block, and their process for dealing with reports of mistakes, and will update you with news when we hear it.
Default filters and government policy
We had thought we were making progress with policy makers on the problems with default on filtering - the Department for Education published a welcome response to their consultation that stated they would look to support parents in making their own decision about what is appropriate for their families. However, only a few days later the Prime Minister confused matters with his article in the Daily Mail. Our previous blog post on this has more detail. In short, it is not clear exactly what the Government's position is.
Along with Index on Censorship, Big Brother Watch, Coadec and Taxpayers Alliance we have asked for a briefing on exactly what the policy now is. We will keep you posted.