January 23, 2014 | Peter Bradwell

What's happening to your medical records and how you can opt out

The NHS has been going through some fairly radical changes. This will affect who can see your medical records and what they can do with them.

Where your records will be stored, the people deciding who has access to them, the reasons people can access them - all of these things are affected by what's happening.

And it is happening now.

You have the opportunity to opt out of your medical records being used in this way. But you have to actively opt out. If you don't want your medical records to be part of the new system from the start you need to opt out soon.

If you're just looking for details about how to do that, I'd suggest heading over to medConfidential, who have produced information about what the changes mean and a guide to opting out with forms for doing so

There's also lots of really useful information up on Dr Neil Bhatia's site and information on how to opt out, again with an opt out form (in pdf format), should you decide that's what you want to do.

More on what is happening to your records

The NHS are making some big changes to how very sensitive information about us is handled - information about which many people feel understandably protective and worried.

The story about what is happening is fairly long. But most simply put, your medical records, in identifiable form, will be extracted from GP surgeries. They will be held centrally and then made available, in certain circumstances, to a variety of people and institutions from university researchers to think tanks and businesses. The data will be available in different forms for different purposes - sometimes 'anonymised', sometimes 'pseudonymised', sometimes identifiable. There will be various conditions that those wishing to apply for access to the data must meet.

medConfidential say this will "fundamentally alter the concept of doctor-patient confidentiality" - which sounds fair, if only because now there are many more people involved in deciding who can access your medical records, and more people who can potentially do so. 

If you'd like to read NHS England's explanation of what's happening and why they think this is a good idea, read their information page, the patient FAQ and the article written by their Chief Data Officer.

Like medConfidential, lots of people have become extremely concerned about the way these changes are happening. The issues include how much of an informed choice people can make, the faith placed in 'anonymisation' techniques, and who will be able to access records and for what purposes.

What choice do we have?

One of the most pressing issues is whether we have a proper choice about whether our records are part of the new system. 

Well, you can opt out. If you don't do anything, your data will be uploaded to the new system. NHS England say you can change your mind later.

(Update: Phil from medConfidential has pointed out that whilst they say you can change your mind, once your data has been uploaded to HSCIC it will never be deleted and will always be available for subsequent matching on its systems.)

Of course you can only opt out of something that you know is happening. So the opt out approach relies on people knowing what is going on, and having some way of telling the health service what decision they have taken. That places a responsibility on the NHS to provide people with clear and comprehensive information, and to try to make sure people see it.

The NHS fell short of the mark here. Their approach looks like it is more about selling the idea and minimising opt outs than helping people come to informed decisions.

They are sending leaflets, supposedly to every household in the county, with an overview of the benefits of sharing more information. The leaflet is also available as a pdf from the NHS website, with more detail on an information page. Dr Geraint Lewis, the NHS England Chief Data Officer, has posted an article explaining more about how the new system will work and its benefits. There's an FAQ pdf too, which gives a little more detail. 

The leaflet and website read more like a sales pitch for the new system, and are both light on specifics. The leaflet also implies people need to make appointments with the GP surgery to discuss options for opting out - however this is not true. An appointment is not necessary. 

medConfidential and Dr Neil Bhatia have both pointed out some of the shortcomings with the leaflet and information campaign - some of the things that it doesn't mention or explain properly. 

It has been left to medConfidential, Dr Bhatia and others to provide people with clear, detailed and comprehensive explanations about what is happening, and to make it absolutely clear how people can opt out of the scheme. Following the pressure they have applied, it seems the NHS is trying to up their game.  

medConfidential and Dr Bhatia also raise extremely important questions about other aspects of the system, including the problems with a reliance on anonymisation, and concerns about who will have access to identifiable information and for what purposes (see medConfidential's explanation of how paid for access to information will work.)

Here's some more useful articles with information and opinion about what's going on:

1. An editorial from last week in Nature, criticising how 'people's right to opt out has been greatly downplayed.' 

2. The Guardian this week reported on concerns about access that insurance and drug companies. 

3. Jane Fae on openDemocracy, arguing that we're in danger of sleepwalking into a big information grab. 

4. Ross Anderson on opting out - he notes that "if you don't opt out your kids in the next few weeks the same will happen to their data, and they will not be able to get their data deleted even if they decide they prefer privacy once they come of age." 

5. Jon Baines, of, on why he's worried about the new system and has opted out. 

6. Roy Lilley, giving a run down of what he sees is happening and why the Department of Health could have run the opt out better 

7. An article about an Early Day Motion tabled by MP Roger Godsiff in the House of Commons, following news that 2,400 people have called the customer hotline with concerns about the system since January 6th. 

Of course there are benefits to various innovative uses of medical data. And it's obvious that there are ways to improve how health related information is used. 

But with such fundamental reforms patients should be at the heart of the system, and reforms should be happening with their consent. 

Whatever you think of the merits of the new system, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the way the transition has been handled so far is below standard. Looking at how patients' attitudes and opinions are being built in to this process, it seems the NHS are trying to minimise how many people opt out because they are institutionally so convinced of the benefits of greater data sharing.

This is probably counterproductive, too.  It will surely, for some people, raise doubts about the principles and motivations guiding future decisions about how their medical data will be used. 

If you want to opt out, you can use the forms that medConfidential and Dr Bhatia have made available. You can change your mind at a later date.

More background to relevant NHS changes

As mentioned above, medConfidential have produced a helpful guide to what's happening, including information about changes to the NHS and who is in charge of overseeing the use of health records.  

The King's Fund have produced an explanation of what's happening to the NHS in the form of an animated video, which is helpful for background on what the NHS is going through. 

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January 15, 2014 | Peter Bradwell

How to complain about mobile filtering over-blocking

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.

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January 08, 2014 | Ed Johnson-Williams

MEPs release draft report damning blanket Internet surveillance

Tomorrow MEPs on the European Parliament's civil liberties committee will present their draft report on the Internet surveillance of the UK and USA as well as other EU states. Its recommendations are damning and the UK Government comes in for particularly strong criticism.

It won't be officially presented to the committee until tomorrow but you can already read the draft report on the EU Parliament website. Here are the headlines.

After condemning the systematic collection of the personal data of innocent people, the report calls on EU Member States and the USA "to prohibit blanket mass surveillance activities and bulk processing of personal data."

It goes on say that "these mass surveillance activities appear also to entail illegal actions by intelligence services." The MEPs call on the UK, Germany, France, Sweden and the Netherlands to revise their legislation relating to intelligence services to ensure they comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

They make particular mention of the UK saying that the current legal framework governing British surveillance – the Human Rights Act 1998, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 –  "should be revised" to comply with fundamental rights obligations relating to privacy, data protection and presumption of innocence.

The report also calls on EU Member States to "take appropriate action immediately, including court action, against the breach of their sovereignty...perpetrated through the mass surveillance programmes."

The MEPs go on to call on Member States to "refrain from accepting data from third states which have been collected unlawfully and from allowing surveillance activities on their territory by third states’ governments or agencies which are unlawful under national law".

On transfers of data from Europe to the USA, the committee says that American data protection laws "do not provide adequate protection for EU citizens" and calls on the European Commission to produce a "comprehensive assessment of the US privacy framework covering commercial, law enforcement and intelligence activitie" by June 2014.

It's striking when reading the draft report just how opposite the response to Snowden's revelations has been in Brussels to that in Westminster. This inquiry puts the UK Parliament to shame.

Whereas the European Parliament has called witnesses, had a full debate and will soon hear from Snowden himself, MPs in London have debated Internet surveillance just once. In that debate and in the few committee hearings dealing with surveillance, many MPs have decided that it is more important to criticise Snowden and the Guardian for revealing the surveillance than to engage with implications of the revelations themselves.

ORG and others have long called for a full inquiry into British surveillance law and we welcome the recommendations in the committee's report. We call on the UK Government to accept the recommendations of this report and undertake a comprehensive review of the legislation governing British Internet surveillance.

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December 21, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

More freedoms to use copyrighted works: it's not the end of the world

Yesterday the Government announced its plans to implement the recommendations of the Hargreaves Review - namely, how it will put in place various exceptions to copyright that permit more uses of copyrighted work. Here is the detail (pdf).

These were reforms recommended in the report by Professor Hargreaves in May 2011. (See our write up from the time in Comment is Free). After that, the Government announced its intention to implement his proposals and ran a three month consultation on the plans. You can read our response to the consultation here, and a full list of responses is available at the IPO website. 

Following these two consultations, the government have refined how the ideas will be put into practice. The result is a pretty reasonable set of proposals that will permit all sorts of uses of works that currently sit on the wrong side of the law.

There has been some of the usual alarmist bluster in response already - for example, ITN have suggested the proposals will 'irrevocably dismantle the UK’s intellectual property framework'. 

In reality, it will do no such thing. These are some pretty modest proposals in truth. Some of them will simply bring us line with what plenty of other countries already permit. Some simply help the law match public expectations and existing practices. The IPO seem to have done a good job of listening to some of the concerns about the scope of the exceptions and have narrowed some of them accordingly.

We think that the proposals will help encourage greater use of copyrighted work, encouraging people to be creative, and to engage with the cultural works around them. This won't, we don't think, come at the economic expense of the creators of the original work.

Here are some initial notes on some of the proposed exceptions. 

Private copying

Here are the proposals:

"People will be permitted to copy content they have bought onto any medium or device that they own, strictly for their own personal use (such as transferring their music collection from CD to iPod). This will not allow sharing copies with others but it will allow consumers to copy material to and from private online cloud storage."

'Value added' cloud services will still require licenses, and the copying can only be for private and personal use (meaning it doesn't allow sharing between friends or family, and there is a very cautious approach to access to copies that do not have TPM that needs more explanation.

People will be able to request copies that allow them to take advantage of the exception where TPM (Technical Prevention Measures) prevent them doing so. The Government says that they do not want "this provision to undermine the reasonable application of TPM by rights holders, particularly in new business models".

This leaves some services in a bit of a grey area. For example, when 'buying' a film or tv show over on Blinkbox (as I have done to watch 'Veep'), a a purchase actually means access to a stream. This is permanent access - one presumes so long as Blinkbox exists. If I have 'bought' the Veep series, could I write to the Secretary of State to ask for a copy for personal back up purposes? It could be that the exception leads to services such as Blinkbox modifying their terminology, from 'buy' to something like "long term rental" or something similar.

There will also be no 'iTax' - meaning there will be no levy involved that would see costs added to blank media or cloud services to offset any harms caused by private copying. The reason is that the narrowness of the provision means there will be minimal or no impact on the revenues of rights holders. 


We called in our responses to the consultations for a new exception to permit parody, and set up the site to support that. We are delighted to see the government's intention to "allow limited copying on a fair dealing basis for parody, caricature and pastiche.' They confirm that "existing protection for moral rights, including the right to object to derogatory treatment, will be maintained."

This will be a fair dealing exception. This basically means the legal test, as stated in the Government's response, is "whether a fair minded and honest person would have dealt with the copyright work in the manner in which the defendant did, for the relevant purpose". One aspect of this is the 'degree to which a use competes with exploitation of the copyright of the copyright work…If a use…acts as a substitute for it, and thus affects its value, then it is less likely to be fair".

One interesting side effect of this is that it should incentivise licensing. This is because the availability of a license to use the work will be a factor in whether use of the work without a license for parody is 'fair' under the fair dealing proposals. So this should not undermine existing licensing arrangements, for example. It makes it harder, though, to refuse to license because you simply don't like the intended use.

There are also proposals for lots of other exceptions too - for quotation to enable academic reports, tweets and blogs can reference copyright works (with acknowledgement); to enable non-commercial researchers to use computers to read and analyse data; and to facilitate wider educational use of copyright works (so that teachers, for example, can use material on white boards).

It's a detailed set of plans. I'd recommend taking some time out of your christmas holiday to read it in full.

The proposed reforms, implemented carefully, shouldn't result in a weakening of creators' positions or their levels of remuneration. But they will encourage more socially and economically useful activity. And the Government will review the effects of the plans after they have been implemented, taking into account developments such as the planned copyright licensing hub.

So this is not the end of the world for creative industries. In fact, it should be good news, reflecting public expectations and facilitating greater engagement with copyright works. These look, to us, like some pretty common sense reforms for the digital age.

The Government aims to introduce these "through the smallest possible number of Statutory Instruments" and hope to have them in place by October 2013.


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December 21, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

Court of Appeal allows Golden Eye appeal

This morning the Court of Appeal handed down their judgment in the appeal by the firm Golden Eye. The Court allowed the appeal. We have made a pdf of the judgment available, and an online copy is available at the Bailii website. 

Golden Eye were challenging the High Court's refusal to grant them a "Norwich Pharmacal Order" that would require Telefonica UK to hand over personal details relating to about 6,000 IP addresses.

Open Rights Group intervened in the case on behalf of the Internet users potentially affected by the Order. We were able to do so because of the extraordinary generosity of the supporters who donated to our appeal. 

Here is more information on the original hearing, from Consumer Focus (who intervened at that stage). And here is more background on Open Rights Group's intervention in the Golden Eye appeal.

We are of course disappointed with the decision, and we're sorry to those who donated and thus enabled us to make this intervention that we can't bring you better news. We are extremely grateful for your help.

We will be studying the judgment carefully and then we'll consider properly the implications before deciding how to proceed. 

We are concerned that such a decision effectively means that someone who themselves has no interest in a claim can acquire personal details to obtain large sums of money. In this case Golden Eye are not a firm of solicitors, and thus are not regulated in the same way solicitors are.

However, despite the judgment this was an extremely important intervention. We are pleased that we have made sure the issues raised by applications such as this were closely examined by the Court.

These requests potentially involve large amounts of personal information. Without our intervention, and the excellent work of Consumer Focus earlier in the case, the application would have been something of a formality.

The companies who hold the information, such as Telefonica UK in this case, usually do not contest these applications. That means it is left to us to defend the interests of their users in court. In future it will be much harder for people to run the sort of 'speculative invoicing' campaigns we have seen in the past. That's down to the interventions made in this case.

This is the first of what we hope will be a number of legal interventions, through which we hope to promote the rights of Internet users in the courts. That's why we're so delighted to have achieved our fundraising targets and can recruit a legal officer to manage our legal work.

A big thank you once again to all those who helped us intervene in the case with such generous donations. 

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December 20, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

Confusion over parental Internet controls

Will filters be default on, off or something else?

Five days ago, the Department for Education announced a very reasonable approach to child protection online. Their plan was to make sure parents are supported in making easier, more informed decisions about how to keep their children safe online.

This was based on a consultation that focused on evidence, engagement with stakeholders and soliciting to the views of parents and industry.

But today the Prime Minister is singing a different tune. His article in the Daily Mail today suggests he is taking a more restrictive line, and that he wants to see 'default on' filtering. This has created a lot of confusion, seemingly just to satisfy the Daily Mail's editorial whims. Are they really to be the drivers of Internet policy?

So, what is actually happening? Is this a 5 day policy about-turn?

The Prime Minister is to some extent just describing the approach already set out but in more aggressive terms. However, there are a couple of things to get concerned about:

1. The complexity of the system he seems to be advocating. The Prime Minister has laid out some quite detailed specifications defining how filtering tools should work - with some confusion about what will be on or off by default. 

2. Claire Perry MP has been appointed to lead the implementation of these policies. She has led the campaign for default-on filters. This suggests Government want to do more than help parents make choices about online safety, and want to start taking those decisions for them.

The issue here is whether the Government mandates a specific technology and specific options for consumers, especially where those are on by default.

The available evidence (for example, the EU Kids Online project), does not support moves to implement a default 'on' Internet filters, and suggests that technical measures such as filtering are not effective as a means to prevent children's exposure to risk online. Filters can also give parents a false sense of security and often, through error, overreach or abuse, lead to the blocking of legal and legitimate content.

There are plenty of filtering tools available. According to Ofcom, 46% of parents use them and only a small percentage of those that do not say this is down to lack of awareness or technical skills. The majority of people do not support default on filtering. (See our fact sheet on parental Internet controls.)  

Parents should instead be supported, to help them make easier decisions about what is right for their families. We hoped that the Department's initial response on Friday showed the Government understood this.

The Department for Education arrived at a very reasonable and welcome position:

"...the offer to parents should be reformulated in a way that ensures that children can be given the levels of protection their parents think is appropriate for them, reduces the risk of uninterested parents avoiding online safety issues, and does not impose a solution on adult users or non-parents."

Today's announcement leaves everyone confused - parents, ISPs, the public and probably the Departments who thought they were in charge of policy making.

There are legal and practical reasons why government policy goes through public consultation, and why responses are outlined through official channels. If the government has something specific in mind, then then the place for an announcement is not a newspaper opinion piece. The 3,600 people who responded to the consultation, and received a response from the DfE with a clear reaction, haven't been told of any further shifts.

An article in the Daily Mail simply doesn't mean anything official. We're all left guessing what's going on.

We will be asking for clarification on what is actually happening as soon as possible.

Here is our fact sheet on online parental controls.
Here is our submission to the consultation on parental controls. 

Mobile filtering, and demonstrating the problem with default filters

A leader in the Sunday Times (note: subscription required) wondered aloud why the Government had shunned a 'neat' solution to online pornography. They argued that the evidence of risks associated with mobile use demonstrated the need for default filtering of the internet:

"A report from Professor Andy Phippen of Plymouth University, published last week, showed that 40% of children under 12 have seen pornographic images online. As an article in News Review today explains, this hugely colours their attitudes towards sex — and not in a good way. Many girls are being pressurised into underage sex by boys who have themselves been extensively exposed to gross sexual images."

First, there is no such statistic in the NSPCC report. The report found that for year 6 pupils there "is little evidence in our groups to suggest that these children were exposed to sexualised content, or asked to self generate." The report does cover some very important issues with the sharing of sexual material amongst young people, often related to self-generated images.

It's worth actually reading the report, which is preferable to just repeating something you were told about it.

Second, the article fails to note there is already default Internet blocking on mobile networks.

This is a mistake repeated by the Daily Mail. They say:

"concerns remain about how the Government plans to address children accessing porn via their own smartphones"

These articles help to demonstrate two things.

First, the limitations of default internet blocking. (On a related note, see our recent post on mobile networks' blocking of a church's website and our report, published in May this year jointly with LSE Media Policy Project, on how mobile internet filtering gets it wrong). 

Second, the campaign for 'default on' filtering is based more on assumptions than the evidence of the problem, the tools available and what they can do.

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December 19, 2012 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

ORG Law Fund reaches its goal!

Open Rights Group has raised enough new funds to allow us to recruit a part-time Legal Officer.

I am delighted to tell you that, thanks to your generosity we have now raised enough to be able to fund Open Rights Group’s first Legal Officer.

Thank you very much to all of you who supported our ORG Law Fund, by joining, sharing the campaign on Facebook or Twitter, passing  our videos round on YouTube, telling your friends about our work and signing them up. It is wonderful to see so much support and enthusiasm for ORG.

When we launched the campaign on 2 November 2012 we said that we wanted to reach 150 supporters, the minimum needed to have enough funds to pay for a part-time legal officer:  we now have enough to finance this position.

If you would still like to support our Law fund, please do. If we reach 300 new supporters  we will be able to fund the new position on a full time basis and give ORG an even greater capacity for legal work.  It’s a great time to join ORG as we look back on a year of successes  - defeating ACTA, stopping default censorship and preventing the draft Communications Data Bill becoming law. I encourage you to join and enable us to have more victories as we take on this new project in the coming year.

What will the new position do?

  • Expand and organise our legal panel scheme where individuals can request pro-bono legal advice on digital rights issues

  • Prepare friend of the court briefings to explain the civil liberties consequences of web blocking injunctions

  • Provide technical advice to the courts where proposals would be unworkable or have unforeseen circumstances

  • Draft amendments to delete or replace misused powers, such as Section 127 A, which was used to prosecute Paul Chambers in the Twitter joke trial

  • Challenge Government decisions in judicial reviews

  • This new capacity will enable us to build on the amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefing on the Digital Economy Act juridical review where we explained the impact on privacy

[Read more]

December 17, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

Another church blocked by mobile networks

...just in time for Christmas. In better news, the Government has decided against 'default on' internet blocking

About this time last year we wrote about a church that had been blocked by O2's mobile Internet filters. Following this, we set up, a site which allows people to report 'over-blocking' on their mobile networks.

With somewhat uncanny timing, this morning someone used to tell us about another church (St. Mark's in Southampton) that is blocked - this time on Vodafone. We have confirmed that it is also blocked by Orange. The site is blocked on O2's highest blocking setting, but not on their 'default safety' service.

Using O2's very handy 'URL checker', we have established that they classify the site as 'alcohol'. It is likely that this is the category that has led to its blocking on other networks, but this is not confirmed.

*Update:  Vodafone have confirmed to us that the site has been manually reviewed and the classification of 'alcohol' has been corrected - the site should be unbloked within the next 2 days*

It is likely that the reason for this categorisation is the use of the word 'wine' on the church's website. The church is part of the 'New Wine Network of Churches'. Their website explains that this means they "have the aim of ‘Equipping Churches to see Jesus’ Kingdom Grow'". Their use of the word 'wine' is not related to selling or the use of alcohol.

It's yet another example of how internet filters make simple and costly mistakes which often result in 'over-blocking.' Our report from May this year collected more examples of this. Since then we have seen political parties, technology news websites, and more recently a number of maternity health sites all blocked by mobile networks. It can be tricky and slow to get sites removed from block lists (although mobile networks say this is improving). 

Because of the sheer number of websites there are, most categorisation by filtering services is likely done by an algorithm.

A human could probably spot the difference between a site advocating the force feeding of your kids too much booze, for example, and a church's efforts to express their religious mission. Machines find that more difficult, it seems.

There are broader questions about who makes judgements about what types of sites should be blocked, and what is appropriate for children of different ages. All of which adds up to a need to ensure parents are supported and are able to make decisions for themselves, rather than having decisions made for them. 

...Some good news from the Government on internet blocking - and a thank you

So, now for some better news on this issue; the Department for Education seem to agree with us. On Friday they published their response to the consultation on parental controls online. We had been concerned that they would move towards mandating 'default on' ISP level filtering.

But their response says that default filters and pre-filled forms encouraging filtering will not be pursued. Instead, parents will be asked to install filters and be given help to choose age appropriate settings. The Department are taking the following approach:

…the offer to parents should be reformulated in a way that ensures that children can be given the levels of protection their parents think is appropriate for them, reduces the risk of uninterested parents avoiding online safety issues, and does not impose a solution on adult users or non-parents.

The Government accepted default network filters are problematic for four reasons:

To date, the Government’s approach has been based on expert advice that default filtering can create a false sense of security since:

  • It does not filter all potentially harmful content: given the vast amount of material on the internet, it would not be possible to identify all the possible content to be filtered, and very large numbers of websites are created each day.
  • There is also a risk from “over-blocking” – preventing access to websites which provide helpful information on sexual health or sexual identity, issues which young people may want information on but find difficult to talk to their parents about.
  • It does not deal with harms such as bullying, personal abuse, grooming or sexual exploitation which arise from the behaviour of other internet users.
  • It does not encourage parents to engage with the issues and learn about keeping their children safe online. There is a risk that parents might rely on default filtering to protect their children from all potential online harms and not think about how their children might want to use the internet, the kind of content that is appropriate for each child according to their own circumstances, and the risks and harms their children might face.

ORG have been calling for the government to avoid mandating default on ISP filters for some time (you can read our response to the consultation, and our report on mobile Internet censorship, published jointly with LSE Media Policy Project). We think that they would disrupt harmless websites and likely fail parents and their children.

This is also a win for all the ORG supporters who sent in responses to the consultation. They had a significant effect on the outcome, demonstrating that the public and many parents believe that they should have the opportunity to decide for themselves what works for their family. It's clear from the Department's analysis of responses to the consultation that they received a large number . 

As ever, you deserve a big thank you for taking the time to engage in the consultation. It made a difference.

Last week we sent a fact sheet to MPs, highlighting the best available evidence on online parental controls. This is available to read in the 'Our work' section. 


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