Why WordPress bloggers were blocked by TalkTalk, and what it tells us about Internet filtering

At the end of November a number of WordPress blog admins complained on WordPress forums that they were having problems accessing their accounts. It appeared that TalkTalk subscribers who had WordPress blogs could not access their administration pages over https, and so couldn’t write and publish new blog posts.

WordPress were unable to explain what was happening. The first reports were on 26th November and continued until around December 5th.

Similar access problems have occurred before, with users struggling to access WordPress and another site called Vk.com. Other ISPs have had issues (see below).

The story demonstrates some of the key issues with over blocking by ISPs’ Internet filtering systems. There are lessons here for the Government as they press for more Internet blocking – about the ISPs’ responsiveness to reports of over-blocking and how seriously the government and ISPs take the problem. 

It seems reasonable at this point to mention again that in June this year Claire Perry MP, who advises the Prime Minister on preventing the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, described concerns about overblocking as a ‘load of cock‘. 

What happened?

It seems a WordPress account was reported for containing child abuse content, and once this was confirmed WordPress took the account down and the IWF added the relevant URLs to its block list. (thanks to Barry Turnbull for his work figuring out what was happening.)

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) give ISPs a list of sites that contain child abuse images, which the ISPs then block. It is down to the ISP how this blocking actually works. The IWF maintained that no WordPress URLs were on their block list at the time of the access problems and that they are not responsible for how the blocking is implemented. 

So it seems the problem comes from the way TalkTalk deal with the list the IWF supply them. TalkTalk provided the following statement:

“Due to the application of our blocking of the IWF list of URLs that contain child abuse imagery, a small number of users may have experienced intermittent issues accessing WordPress at the end of last week. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.”

Beyond this, we don’t know exactly why TalkTalk’s implementation of the IWF blocking list causes this issue. TalkTalk do not seem to have supplied any further technical explanation. 

It’s not the first time this has happened

The cases we have seen all involve filters struggling to limit the blocking to a specific page or site within a domain, and end up restricting access to more than was intended.

When their subscribers had similar problems accessing some of WordPress and Vk.com in October this year, TalkTalk provided almost the same statement as the one above in response. Just before that statement was posted, TalkTalk admins posted some slightly unclear and unhelpful explanations, pointing the finger of blame at the IWF.

It was reported this week that Sky subscribers also had issues accessing imgur, an image sharing site, last weekend. The difference here is that instead of the intention being to block child abuse material via the IWF list, the aim in this case was to block sites found to be infringing copyright. 

Why does it matter?

1. It matters even when ‘small numbers’ of users can’t access a site.

It seems any TalkTalk users trying to access their WordPress admin pages over https couldn’t do so. It’s important to look at who was affected as much as how many.

Some may have been journalists who couldn’t post stories for a number of days. For others their WordPress sites may have been part of their business, meaning they couldn’t reach their market for a week.

There shouldn’t be a number of affected users that counts as legitimate collateral damage.

2. ISPs need to take more responsibility for negative affects of filtering.

Affected users received vague and sometimes conflicting information about the problem and who was to blame.

In their forums, for example, TalkTalk’s admins initially blamed the existence of the IWF list rather than their implementation of it.

The IWF explained repeatedly on Twitter that the issue was not of their making.

WordPress struggled to explain why their users couldn’t access the site, leaving some of their users to speculate that it was WordPress’ fault. It is telling, for example, that WordPress lead developer Peter Westwood was tweeting at IWF for an explanation on 4th December.

Even WordPress and its users can find themselves in a protracted state of limbo. It will probably be a lot more difficult for a site with a lower profile to get things sorted.

ISPs should make sure that there are speedier ways for sites to get these issues resolved, and should explain as soon as possible what the cause of the problem is. Those running websites need to be able to find out quickly from ISPs what is happening and why so they can explain to their users.

3. The Government need to take more responsibility for their filtering policies – even if they involve ‘voluntary’ industry arrangements.

The Government unwisely want more Internet filtering. They have pushed ISPs to roll out network level parental control filtering and want to see more blocking of content related to extremism. They seem less concerned that blocking comes with technical issues.

In their response to an e-petition about over-blocking the government say they have set up a discussion group at UKCCIS to look at over-blocking, but stress users should complain to ISPs about their issues.

We know mistakes and errors will happen, and the Government should be ensuring ISPs deal with the problems quickly. At the moment, nobody is willing to take responsibility.

In cases like this, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in particular, who have recently pushed filtering with such enthusiasm, should be trying to understand why these problems are occurring.

We’ve asked to be part of the UKCCIS group to see if that forum can be a route to a solution.