December 21, 2011 | Jim Killock

O2 bans church for Christmas, claiming its website has “adult content”

For the last four months, and despite repeated complaints, O2 has blocked the website of a Sheffield church, claiming it features adult content.

Now it’s Christmas, the time when we expect churches to be exercising their freedom of religion and expression to bring their message to those of us who are perhaps a little more Scrooge-like.

But not if you’re an O2 customer, it seems. O2 have settled firmly on the Scrooge side of things, denying their customers not just access to this site, but also any semblance of decent customer service when dealing with this censorship. O2 customer and ORG Supporter Gervase Markham explains:

My wife and I just moved to Sheffield and joined a network of churches called The Crowded House. I used my O2 Mobile Broadband to try and access their website, but it told me it was “18+ content”! When I contacted O2, my first email was rejected due to having “insufficient information”. I finally managed to find a contact form which worked, and they told me that I could “solve the problem” by having my mobile enabled for 18+ content! I told them that this was definitely not what I wanted, and refused to go through their age ‘verification’ procedure. Fixing the censorship for me alone is not a proper fix.

The next thing I knew, a text arrived on my phone saying “you can now access 18 rated content”. I had to explain to my wife quite why I was getting a text saying that. … To get them to reinstate the block, which they had removed without my permission, I had to call them. They told me they'd change it back, but then left me a message to say that they couldn't reinstate the block without my date of birth! I had to fight my way through their support menu system again to give it to them.

During the call, an O2 representative told me that he and his manager knew of no procedure for appealing against a block. He said that the block wasn't just for 18+ content, but it was also for things which might corrupt the morals of children. I asked him if he was describing my church's website in that way, which he hastily denied. He told me they unblocked people's phones all the time because they couldn't access perfectly innocent websites. I suggested that perhaps that this indicated that the system wasn't working very well.

ORG believes that innocent websites should not be censored by default, and clear mechanisms should exist to get innocent sites taken out of automatically generated censorship lists.

Just as importantly, people should provide their consent before having their Internet censored. They should be told what it means. And a customer should not be forced to label themselves a “porn-fiend” in order to remove censorship.

If you encounter examples of this default censorship disrupting people’s businesses, churches or free expression, please let us know. Report the block, via our mobile-friendly website, Read more about what mobile companies should be doing here.

Comments (13)

  1. Ralph:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 11:21 AM

    Most of these blocking systems rely on a automated process that can make mistakes. Sounds like they offered you a quick way to visit the website by lifting the filter and you refused.

    I don't agree with the arbitrary blocking of websites by providers but its pretty obvious this example has been raised to make o2 look like they are in some way anti-religious. Which clearly isn't the case.

    it should be down to personal responsibility to filter web use, if you had access to everything then these kind of silly stories would never be written.

  2. Derick Rethans:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 11:30 AM

    I've just tried to change the setting on vodafone's website and I get:

    We're sorry, but you are not permitted to change this setting. Please contact Customer Services on 191.

    The reason is because of a comment at "When I was a Vodafone mobile broadband customer last year, I had the strange experience of finding the default adult filter block meant I could not access any photos on Flickr."

  3. Mark - ISPreview UK:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 11:41 AM

    Last month we had Vodafone UK blocking access to a clothing website but this one goes too far. Nobody should be restricting access to religious sites and if they do then there needs to be a simple process to request removals for any unjustified blocks.

  4. Jim Killock:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 12:24 PM

    It can be very difficult to remove the blocks - harder than is needed - and customers are not informed in advance - which is bad. On the point about simply removing the block for oneself, that's not a proper solution, as any business or organisation that is blocked will need a way to reach their customers. They need to be able to check and to get incorrect blocks removed, as Mark says.

  5. Brett:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 01:10 PM

    What if providers who incorrectly block sites and don't respond quickly to complaints had a financial penalty? But that only comes if there are more laws covering all of this, rather than ad-hoc actions by providers, right?

    btw, O2 also changed me to 'age-verified' when I complained about over-blocking, even though I asked them not to change my account at all. I had them change it back (took 3 days).

  6. Steve Holmes:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 01:20 PM

    The same website is blocked by Orange.

  7. Brett:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 01:30 PM

    Just tested, not blocked on Three

  8. Pete:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 02:06 PM

    For what it's worth, I've just tried on my O2 mobile, and it's not blocked. I haven't knowingly had any restrictions removed.

  9. Brett:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 02:26 PM

    I reported block to the O2 social media team on Twitter yesterday (the only way I know to report an incorrectly blocked site to them). I just checked again, it's still blocked.

    Pete, you could check your account status by trying to go to a site that would *definitely* be blocked.

    Shouldn't it be easier to see what your account is set to though? (Shouldn't it show in the phone under 'Parental Controls' if all this was being done properly?)

  10. Abs@o2:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 03:04 PM

    Hi there,

    We were alerted to this earlier this week and immediately contacted our supplier in order for the site to be reviewed. We have received confirmation that the URL had been incorrectly categorised by the automated system and will be unblocked by tomorrow.

    Like all UK operators and ISPs, O2 blocks access to illegal images of child abuse, as defined by the Internet Watch Foundation. Quite separately, we also have policies in place for content rated 18+. All the operators subscribe to a Code of Practice for the self-regulation of new forms of content on mobiles (which can be found here). As part of this, mobile operators created the Independent Mobile Classification Board (IMCB), which provides a classification framework for commercial content that they promote or market.

    O2’s internet filter is aligned to the IMCB framework. Sites are automatically categorised and, if they are classified suitable for those aged 18 and over, they require age verification. The Internet is so vast this can only be done in an automated way. Inevitably this means that some websites are mistakenly caught up in the block. Where that happens, we will of course listen to our customers and take action to unblock sites, where appropriate, as quickly as possible.


    O2 Social Media Team

  11. Jim Killock:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 05:06 PM


    Thanks for your reply. Although unblocking sites when you get public complaints is useful, what you really need is a system that is transparent and allows simple checking and reporting.

    Twitter is not a public complaints form, nor a means to verify blocks. A website owner should be able see if your network is blocking their site, and complain, whether or not they are an O2 customer. Your customers should be able to report the blocks as and when they find them.

    We would be very happy to talk to your public policy team about these issues in the New Year.

  12. Pete:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 05:10 PM

    Note to O2 Social Media Team:-

    You are not legally entitled to intercept, monitor, block, or restrict the CONTENT of lawful communications without the EXPLICIT CONSENT of BOTH sender and recipient.

    See Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act s1, Privacy in Electronic Communications Regulations, Data Protection Act, European Data Retention Directives... amongst others.

    And before you add 'terrorism', to the terms paedophile and adult, you will also find that the Home Office ATCA Draft Code of Pracise also explicitly excludes URLs too. So don't bother.

    You are breaking the law by imposing unauthorised censorship on lawful communications.

  13. Pete:
    Dec 21, 2011 at 05:17 PM

    PS... could you also tell your colleagues in Telefonica Brazil to stop intercepting the private/confidential communications of their customers and the web sites they visit using Phorm?

    That would also be very much appreciated, thanks.