Digital Privacy

Another church blocked by mobile networks

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.