The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is now involved in how mobile internet filtering works. In this post we explain what role they have and how you should be able to get over-blocking problems fixed.
Yesterday we had a very helpful meeting with the BBFC. Last year they took on an important role dealing with mobile Internet filtering. You can read about it on their website.
Over Christmas there was an awful lot of understandable concern about mobile filters, especially the ‘Parental Control’ filters provided as an optional service by O2. We wrote about this at the time, but for now it’s worth repeating that one of the biggest lessons was that mobile networks don’t do a good enough job of explaining how their filters work, why and how they make decisions about what gets filtered, and how people can complain.
I thought it would be helpful to explain what role the BBFC now has, and explain how the process for complaints about over-blocking (or under-blocking) is supposed to work.
The BBFC’s role involves three things:
1. Setting a framework that describes what should be considered adult content for the purposes of mobile phone filtering. They have defined a set of categories and explained what content will be considered blockable.
2. They offer advice to the mobile networks when they are setting their filters.
3. They run an appeals process, which is designed to resolve disputes about over- or under-blocking.
The BBFC do not classify individual sites for mobile networks or run a first-stage complaints process. And they aren't responsible for the decisions that mobile networks make about implementing the framework. It’s also important to point out that their framework and complaints procedure only applies to networks’ under 18 filters - their default safety level - and not to other services provided for different age groups. For example, they do not regulate O2’s Parental Controls, which is an optional service designed for those under 12.
How you can complain about overblocking
1. You should be able to complain direct to the relevant mobile operator. The BBFC have helpfully provided email addresses for each mobile network, which is where you should direct complaints about overblocking or underblocking in the first instance. This contact information should also be on the mobile operators’ websites. In some cases it isn’t, however. For example, at the moment, O2 point people at their Twitter account or forum. As we saw over Christmas, those are not helpful channels.
2. If you do not get a satisfactory resolution from the mobile network, you can then appeal to the BBFC. Details about how to do this are on the BBFC website. BBFC have committed to resolving the complaints they receive in five working days.
What will happen after a complaint?
If the BBFC agree that a site should not be blocked by under 18 filters, in the case of over blocking, then they will inform the mobile network, who should then remove the site from their block list. The BBFC told us that in the cases they have handled so far, the networks have responded fairly quickly to these notifications.
The same applies for under blocking - i.e. if the BBFC decide a site should be blocked, they will inform the network and it should be added to the block list.
Things are slightly complicated with overblocking because at the moment, mobile networks are allowed to block more categories than the BBFC have set out.
So even if the BBFC decide that a site should not be blocked against the BBFC criteria for over 18 content, the mobile networks might decide that the site should still be blocked because it falls under their additional categories.
For instance, we believe most networks block information about ‘circumvention’ technology, which might help people learn how to get round blocking, even though such information is not considered blockable by the BBFC. Networks also used to block content related to tobacco or alcohol, but the BBFC framework specifically excludes sites that supply age restricted goods or services such as tobacco or alcohol. We are not currently sure if any of the networks continue to block alcohol and tobacco.
That may lead to a fair amount of confusion if the BBFC decide something should not be blocked but the mobile network decides it still fits one of their additional categories. This is made more tricky for consumers or website operators because the mobile networks don't publish what categories they block, so it's impossible currently for someone to know in advance of any complaint.
Mobile networks need to be more transparent, consistent, clear and responsive
The BBFC site and process is a vast improvement on the previous code - it's clearer, more considered, and there's an added appeals process. They are taking the work seriously.
However, the issues with mobile networks’ own implementation have not gone away. The BBFC's transparency, clarity and responsiveness cannot be a replacement for mobile networks' own information or process, because these networks will be customers' or website owners' first port of call when they are looking for information or trying to complain.
It is still hard to get clear information from networks about what they block and why - for instance what categories they filter - and it is still hard to get information about their own complaints procedure. For example, O2 point people at their Twitter account and forums, which to date have not been helpful. Three still link to the Mobile Broadband Group code of practice, rather than the BBFC. And Everything Everywhere used to provide a list of categories filtered by their two filtering levels, but that link no longer works.
Families should be in a position to make informed choices about what their children can access via mobile phones. At the moment, it’s not really possible for a parent to get a clear idea about what a mobile networks’ default safety filters do and why.
It also should be possible for someone who runs a website that is blocked by a mobile network for no good reason to get that problem fixed quickly. They should be able to find out easily if their site is blocked on different networks. Again, at the moment that process is not clear enough and happens too slowly.
It shouldn't be too difficult to fix these problems - it's more a question of whether mobile networks consider it important enough to spend time and resources really addressing it.