June 29, 2019 | Ed Johnson-Williams and Amy Shepherd

Online Harms: Blocking websites doesn't work - use a rights-based approach instead

Blocking websites isn't working. It's not keeping children safe and it's stopping vulnerable people from accessing information they need. It's not the right approach to take on "Online Harms".


This is the finding from our recent research into website blocking by mobile and broadband Internet providers. And yet, as part of its Internet regulation agenda, the UK Government wants to roll out even more blocking.

The Government’s Online Harms White Paper is focused on making online companies fulfil a “duty of care” to protect users from "harmful content" – two terms that remain troublingly ill-defined.1

The paper proposes giving a regulator various punitive measures to use against companies that fail to fulfil this duty, including powers to block websites.

If this scheme comes into effect, it could lead to widespread automated blocking of legal content for people in the UK.

The Government is accepting public feedback on their plan until Monday 1 July. Send a message to their consultation using our tool before the end of Monday!

Mobile and broadband Internet providers have been blocking websites with parental control filters for five years. But through our Blocked project – which detects incorrect website blocking – we know that systems are still blocking far too many sites and far too many types of sites by mistake. 

Thanks to website blocking, vulnerable people and under-18s are losing access to crucial information and support from websites including counselling, charity, school, and sexual health websites. Small businesses are losing customers. And website owners often don't know this is happening.

We've seen with parental control filters that blocking websites doesn't have the intended outcomes. It restricts access to legal, useful, and sometimes crucial information. It also does nothing to prevent people who are determined to get access to material on blocked websites, who often use VPNs to get around the filters. Other solutions like filters applied by a parent to a child's account on a device are more appropriate.

Unfortunately, instead of noting these problems inherent to website blocking by Internet providers and rolling back, the Government is pressing ahead with website blocking in other areas.

Blocking by Internet providers may not work for long. We are seeing a technical shift towards encrypted website address requests that will make this kind of website blocking by Internet providers much more difficult.

When I type a human-friendly web address such as openrightsgroup.org into a web browser and hit enter, my computer asks a Domain Name System (DNS) for that website's computer-friendly IP address - which will look something like 46.43.36.233. My web browser can then use that computer-friendly address to load the website.

At the moment, most DNS requests are unencrypted. This allows mobile and broadband Internet providers to see which website I want to visit. If a website is on a blocklist, the system won't return the actual IP address to my computer. Instead, it will tell me that that site is blocked, or will tell my computer that the site doesn't exist. That stops me visiting the website and makes the block effective.

Increasingly, though, DNS requests are being encrypted. This provides much greater security for ordinary Internet users. It also makes website blocking by Internet providers incredibly difficult. Encrypted DNS is becoming widely available through Google's Android devices, on Mozilla's Firefox web browser and through Cloudflare’s mobile application for Android and iOS. Other encrypted DNS services are also available.

Our report DNS Security - Getting it Right discusses issues around encrypted DNS in more detail.

Blocking websites may be the Government's preferred tool to deal with social problems on the Internet but it doesn't work, both in policy terms and increasingly at a technical level as well.

The Government must accept that website blocking by mobile and broadband Internet providers is not the answer. They should concentrate instead on a rights-based approach to Internet regulation and on educational and social approaches that address the roots of complex societal issues.


  1. See ORG's response to the Government's Online Harms White Paper:
    https://www.openrightsgroup.org/about/reports/org-policy-responses-to-online-harms-white-paper ↩︎