December 23, 2013 | Jim Killock

Blocking: what could possibly go wrong?

Concerns are growing over exactly what filters are doing, and what information is blocked for adults and children.

David Cameron cc-by-nc-sa-worldeconomicforumWe now have two kinds of blocking: firstly, mobile companies, providing one or two levels of filtering, which has to be actively switched off.

Secondly, we have new “parental controls” developed and rolled out by BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin. Here, users will be asked to decide whether to switch different filters on, but will be “nudged” towards enabling them. 

Last week, BT launched their filtering product, and people started to look at what they were blocking. Some surprises emerged, including a suggestion it would block sites that “promote respect for a partner”. 

Over the weekend BT updated their descriptions of Parental Control categories, removing the description of sites that “promote respect for a partner”. However, this leaves a great deal of doubt: has BT changed the filtering mechanism, or has the description merely been altered? How do we know? (The Register says it is just a change of description.)

Also, over the weekend, people concerned about blocking were directed to O2’s url checker, snowballing after a LGBT website drew attention to their site being blocked. Many bloggers and others found that their sites were blocked by its Parental Control category and used Twitter to ask O2 why their site was blocked. 

Sites being blocked on the O2 Parental Control filter would not be unexpected, as it blocks everything on the web with a small number of exceptions deemed suitable for under-12s. The setting is switched on by parents, unlike the “default safety” which is set for everyone until they get it lifted.

However, what we really need to know with O2’s whitelist is who is making the decision about what is allowed for children, and by what criteria. It is allowing a very narrow range of material, which should be chosen carefully to be as broad but as safe as possible.

O2’s under-12 whitelist includes but excludes - showing that their aim of promoting child safety with this product really is not delivering very well.

This raises wider questions. Perhaps there are some sites that a parent should never be able to ban for a child, starting with help services like Childline. Unfortunately, what you should not ban varies with a child’s age, meaning in practice, once empowered with blocking tools, some parents will seek to restrict information inappropriately. Abortion advice, sexuality, religious debate, perhaps Darwinism: all these are now much more blockable for the parent worried about their child’s moral development.

Let’s remember, blocking has arisen at the government’s initiative. These problems will be theirs to resolve. 

Both mobile and fixed ISPs are loath to provide information about how and what is blocked. [note] ISPs so far have been very cagey about how sites are categorised. BT, for example, disclaims responsibility for the categorisation and promises to forward complaints to their unnamed third-party supplier. 

Beyond the reasons of commercial confidentiality, there are reasons why ISPs may be reluctant to tell you who makes the blocking decisions. Some ISPs buy filtering services from countries with differing religious or cultural values to the UK - attitudes to guns, alcohol, sex and discrimination may not match customer expectations. Some use services that use computer algorithms to do the bulk of their classification. Others may use cheap labour.

What you can guarantee is that filtering is error prone. The sheer number of classifications to make means that costs have to be kept low. 

But without some level of transparency and accountability, not just to their customers but to the internet at large, why should people trust the decisions ISPs make about what they or their children are allowed to see? 

We are calling on ISPs to provide lookups, information about where they get their categorisation, criteria, and means to report and correct errors, as well as statstics about the problems they encounter. Last week, we made ten recommendations to UKCCIS to deal with overblocking. We need transparency.

But in the absence of transparency from companies, ORG is putting together tools to track what is blocked and where. We intend to develop our current site into a means to request a check across the UK - using probes based in each network. 

Our aim is to allow you to be able to check whether your site is blocked, and where, so that you can make complaints as you need to. We want to compile a list of sites that are frequently mis-categorised and limit some of the harms. Ultimately, we want to do this to encourage the ISPs to provide these tools themselves. 

Of course, we need money to do this, so if you haven't already, please join us

[Note] O2 attempted to placate people on twitter by shifting the responsibility for all web filtering to the BBFC (almost certainly based on a misunderstanding within O2’s staff about how their web filters are managed). See this for instance. O2 however are the one company that does at least provide a mechanism for people to check.

Comments (13)

  1. Ed Jones:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 03:27 PM

    Why is our outrage directed at the filter settings - which are obviously going to fail and will naturally be self-defeating after a while because they're so manifestly ineffective - instead of the broader issue of mandated filtering in the first place?

    I'm really disappointed to see ORG providing recommendations to the UKCCIS on filtering. You guys should be fighting this at every turn. Personally, I find pornography distasteful, and much of it obviously subjugates women. But a government internet filter? That's scary stuff. Why the tacit support?

  2. Patrick H. Lauke:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 03:47 PM

    Beyond transparency, I would also like to see oversight and accountability, as I already mentioned quite a while ago.

    And beyond the ISP filtering, I'd also like to know the same (transparency, oversight, accountability) for the list of "naughty" search terms that Google and co. are being given.

  3. Jim Killock:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 03:56 PM

    @Ed We are adamant that we are against mandates and defaults for filters. But the ISPs are implementing these filters, so that puts us in a difficult position. The bottom line is that people have a right to choose the tools they use, including network filters. They also have a right not to be misled or duped into using something they don’t really want or disadvantages them in ways that weren’t explained to them.

    Even if we get what we want, the likelihood is that filters will carry on creating problems, as they do in schools and elsewhere. Whatever they do, we need to show the harms, in order to help people get accurate advice.

    But I am sure we will continue to oppose the idea of filters, especially as defaults, as they are with mobile providers.

    @Patrick Good points

  4. Ed Jones:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 04:18 PM

    @jim thanks for the reply. I'm not *quite* clear on the ORG position here. In the minds of most non-technical people, your guidance on making the filters better will be tacit acceptance of the default-on arrangement. Which I'm pretty sure is not what you (or I) think is appropriate!

    I totally appreciate this is a difficult one to navigate - but it feels a lot like ORG might end up being seen as tacit supporters of 'default on if only it were tidied up a bit' (which of course is impossible). I can see the spin now: "It's early days: the ORG have been giving us advice about how we can make the filters better, and then they'll be happy to have the filters left in place". You see the problem?

    Obviously the issue isn't pornography. It's not about looking after our kids (I am a father; I have the same worries as many other parents). It's about the slippery slope of the government mandating a secret list what must be registered to be viewable on our internet connections.

  5. Jim Killock:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 05:00 PM

    @Ed Absolutely we understand your point. There are two separate issues. The first is, should people have filters turned on without their knowledge? the answer is firmly no.

    The second issue is, if a large number of people choose to use filters, how does this change things for website owners? Will mistakes be corrected? More broadly, how do we make sure that the public understands how troublesome filters are, so they do not think that filters are a panacea.

    There are other problems that come with people choosing network filters, as they are likely to evolve. Firstly, at the moment, they are generally “one size fits all”, which may well be a factor in lowering their use or helpfulness. Irritating filters will be switched off – this is extremely likely. Secondly, use of filters seems to involve monitoring of traffic and data collection. This is unfair, especially if Cameron and others are pushing filtering as a ‘parental duty’.

    Hope that helps!

  6. Ed Jones:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 06:17 PM

    @jim thanks for engaging with me on this. OK - I understand ORG's position better. :-)

    I'm a strong supporter of yours - fundamentally opposed to the filtering and also very technical - and yet I was still confused about ORG's position; that makes me think some really obvious separation of the two issues in your messaging would be a good idea.

  7. Ian Waring:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 07:47 PM

    I originally addressed some words close to the below as a reply to Jim Killock from his email this afternoon entitled "Merry Blockedmas", to which I added "ORG now complicit with this Govt mess. Please just say "No". He did reply, and I think we're on the same side of the table. I just question what purpose ORG's involvement in "making things better" - an impossible task in the final analysis - will actually play out.

    I'm a big supporter of ORG's work and have supported many of your campaigns. However I feel your assistance to those of us who believe the imposition of filters is a meaningless gesture at best, and mandated govt censorship at worst, is completely misplaced. The campaign should be aimed at exposing its futility, not in giving the impression that we accept it and will make as good a go of it as we can. We should simply let the futility run riot and for the government to be forced to get it dismantled.

    I do not condone illegal content (wherever it resides) or it's access from within our borders in any way. However, I feel everyone has lost sight of what we can do to fix the root concerns and not cause collateral damage while doing so. Playing wac-a-mole with 16.7 million web sites outside of any legal framework is plain stupid, as the rest of the world is keen to point out. As just one example, I cannot accept orders for web sites paid in Bitcoins without Sky knocking out access to my sales site, as they think Bitcoins are an indicator of illegal content. Pardon?

    It doesn't take brain of Britain for ISPs, on legal request, to trace back access to identified sites hosting content deemed illegal to their consumers in the UK geography, and to let the police search and prosecute from there. We already have the legal framework to prosecute offenders. Circumventing our courts process with a secret blacklist, whose composition is not open to any defined rules or scrutiny, serves only to maximise the incidence of unintended consequences without tackling the root cause it is supposed to remove; it just makes it more of a moving target.

    Some days I do wonder what issue we're really trying to solve, but that's a longer story. Every time I hear a politician utter a reason, it normally involves a quick trip down maslows hierarchy to undefined fear, horrors, or to terrorism. Much like the Copyright Maximalists will hook onto funding of illicit trade or terrorism where the reality is simple economics and ease of access. But that's another blog post.

    I'm conscious that press efforts to repeat the searches used in search histories derived from PCs used by convicted child killers has not revealed a single illegal site (Amanda Platell was the last person i recall trying, for the Daily Mail - and came up with nothing).

    So, the government have embarked on a mission with no material benefit, no useful purpose and with collateral damage way out of proportion to any useful result. And now the ORG are complicit in its execution. At best, very unfortunate in my humble opinion. You should simply shout "No" from every rooftop, and give the politicians the methods by which they address their concerns that we know will work more effectively.

    I guess the real question is - what problem(s) are they really trying to solve? But whatever that is, the current filter strategy is not a sustainable answer.

  8. Patrick H. Lauke:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 08:16 PM

    Shouting a categorical "NO" simply gets you dismissed from any further discussion on the matter of filtering and censorship, as in the minds of those who are pro-filtering this immediately brands you as somebody who condones porn, paedophilia, piracy and god knows what else. Pointing out how technically flawed the entire approach is - by explaining in great detail how it can all be circumvented, how false positives will happen, etc - simply gets you branded as a techno-nerd, and a lazy one at that (as the "use your big brains" style comment from Cameron to Google at the time hinted at).

    There will always be strong lobby groups that demand filtering - and if parents WANT to enable filtering on their connection to supposedly protect their little ones, I'd say rather than trying to shout them down and say how futile it is, it's far more productive to accept the fact that filtering will be a reality, and instead we should work towards limiting some of the worst problems of non-transparent, unaccountable filtering. Having a transparent way to check what IS actually being filtered, having a clear oversight body (which should work openly, and not be tied to any secret lobby/political party), and having clear and efficient methods of recourse (if I'm a business that is wrongly being blocked) are far more productive ways to engage in the process, IMHO.

  9. Ian Waring:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 08:22 PM

    No need to shout anyone down. You just leave them in a cold bath and not voluntarily turn the hot tap on for them. Like the old Dutch proverb, "A Ship on a Beach is a Lighthouse to the Sea". Allow them to experience their own futility; they may then return to listen first.

  10. Patrick H. Lauke:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 08:26 PM

    "You just leave them in a cold bath" if it just affected the people who turn it on, fine. But if they turn on filters and then their children/spouses/etc all of a sudden don't have access to sites like, sexual education resources, LGBT sites, etc....that then goes beyond just leaving the muppets to it. Plus, if i'm a business owner who all of a sudden finds himself with a blocked site, that affects ME (in potential loss of business), not just those who can't get to my site because they turned the filter on. So no, I don't think that's an acceptable solution...

  11. Ian Waring:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 08:55 PM

    My contention is that ORG should be highlighting the futility of the proposals and it's downsides, and offering to propose workable fixes. Not to be complicit in trying to maintain the Frankenstein of a process that they will never be able to fix.

    Overall, i'm having difficulty trying to understand what root issue the Government are genuinely trying to fix. Outside of sensationalist trips down Maslows Hierarchy, or a need to grasp at solutions to problems they can't articulate.

    I saw at that one Minister is asking "to see whether there is scope to move toward a cross-industry voluntary approach to inhibiting access to websites that are substantially focused upon infringement of copyright". But that is asking the wrong question also. If you're in a war against torrent sites springing up everywhere outside your jurisdiction, you hit them economically; you make your legitimate content easily accessible in a cost effective and timely fashion to your consumers. Why go through the trouble of doing anything different? It's within the scope of industry itself to make the issue moot in the first instance.

    Likewise, if the govt would like to express what problem they're trying to solve, we could propose some solutions. At the moment, we're in a guessing contest...

  12. Cyber-Pulse:
    Dec 25, 2013 at 07:58 PM

    the government say blocking is un-acceptable and infringes human rights yet quite clearly do it themselves...two-faced much??

    i usually dont worry about blocking as i either use a mix of VPNs, Proxy servers and/or Proxy IPs, but for the majority who cant do this, then it infringes upon their rights, tbh the governments of the world infringe upon my rights and others' rights....but what do they care, they're highly paid and only do whatever they please, no politician ever cared what the people thought,

  13. Ian Waring:
    Dec 25, 2013 at 08:25 PM

    Forbes are reporting that at least one MPs personal web site gets nixed by the filters. May be a service to our descendants after all.