At the behest of David Cameron and the Daily Mail, everyone who signs up for an Internet account is asked Would you like to keep 'adult content' blocked on this connection?
It's a misleading question. A more accurate version is Would you
like an unnamed third party company to use a secret, arbitrary, ever-changing blacklist to spy on all your clicks and decide which ones are and are not allowed to get through?
Like China's Great Firewall, the UK firewall is a patchwork of
rules and filters that are opaque to users and regulators. Every ISP uses its own censorship supplier to spy on its customers and decide what they're allowed to see, and they change what is and is not allowed from moment to moment, with no transparency
into how, when or why those decisions are being made.
Case in point: Virgin Media is blocking access to the website of the All Party Parliamentary Group on
Extraordinary Rendition . The site hosts Parliament's own documents on extraordinary rendition (this being the favoured government euphemism for sending people to other countries to be tortured ).
There's no way to know why
Virgin blocked this. It's probably because much of the vocabulary used, seems to a dumb algorithm, to sound a bit like a website glorifying terrorism. Virgin in fact makes the unlikely sounding claim that the site is serving malware.
Here at TF we've long been opponents of website blocking. It's a blunt instrument that is prone to causing collateral damage and known for failing to achieve its stated aims. We recently discovered that
thanks to Sky's Broadband Shield filtering system, TorrentFreak is now blocked on one of the UK's largest ISPs by users who think they are protecting their kids.
Our crimes are the topics we cover. As readers know we write about
file-sharing, copyright and closely linked issues including privacy and web censorship. We write about the positives and the negatives of those topics and we solicit comments from not only the swarthiest of pirates, but also the most hated anti-piracy
people on the planet.
If the MPAA, RIAA, FACT, BPI, RightsAlliance, BREIN and every DMCA takedown company on earth want to have their say they can do that, alongside the folks at The Pirate Bay. We won't deny anyone their voice,
whether it's someone being raided by the police or the people who instigated the raid. Getting the news out is paramount.
We are not scared to let anyone have their say and we embrace free speech. But apparently the people at Sky
and their technology masters at Symantec believe that we should be denied our right to communicate on the basis that we REPORT NEWS about file-sharing issues.
That's just utter nonsense.
about viruses and malware ALL THE TIME, so are they placed in the malware and virus category? Of course not. Thanks to their very own self-categorization process they wear the Technology and Telecommunication label. Is their website blocked by any
of their own filters? I won't even bother answering that.
Examining other sites helpfully categorized by Symantec and blindly accepted by Sky reveals no more clarity either. UK ISP Virgin Media runs its own Usenet access,
customers can find it at news.virginmedia.com. From there it's possible to download every possible copyrighted movie and TV show around today, yet that service is listed by Symantec as a Technology and Telecommunication / Portal site.
Download.com, possibly the world's largest distributer of file-sharing software, is also green-lighted through.
On the other hand, TorrentFreak -- which neither offers or links to copyrighted files and hosts no file-sharing
software whatsoever -- is blocked for any Sky household filtered for under 18s? Really? Our news site is suitable for all ages yet when Sky's teenager filter is turned on we are put on the same level as porn, suicide, self harm, violence and gore.
Sky has inevitably removed a block on TorrentFreak, after its crap new network-level filter negligently classified the news outlet as a file-sharing site. No doubt there are thousands more websites being unfairly blocked that don't quite have
the influence of TorrentFreak.
Though intended to block unsuitable content for children such as porn, gambling or violent sites, the filter also appears to be blocking legitimate sites. Sky doesn't categorise sites itself, instead working with
UK Prime Minister David Cameron wants all Internet providers to block adult content by default, to protect the children. This filtering requirement is controversial for a number of reasons, not least due to ISPs' filters targeting a wide range of other
content too. Sky's newly launched Broadband Shield, for example, blocks numerous legitimate file-sharing related sites including uTorrent and BitTorrent.com, download portals for Linux distributions, and even TorrentFreak.
While most of the
discussion has focused on porn, Sky's filter -- and those operated by other ISPs -- actually block a much wider range of content. Sky's The 13-years-old-and-over setting is ticked by default, which also includes dating, anonymizers,
file-sharing and hacking.
In other words, those customers who don't opt out from the 'porn filter will also have file-sharing sites and services blocked. A quick round on the internet reveals that this category is rather inclusive, and not limited
to pirate sites.
Among the blocked sites are BitTorrent.com, who work with Madonna and other artists on a regular basis to release free-to-download content. The same is true for other BitTorrent clients including uTorrent, Transmission and Vuze.
Tribler , which is developed at Delft University of Technology with EU taxpayer money, is filtered as well.
Websites which offer perfectly legitimate content via P2P downloads are also filtered by Sky's default settings. This includes VODO , the
distribution platform for indie filmmakers, the download page of the Linux-based Fedora, as well as the download portal Linuxtracker .
In addition, several websites that merely write news about file-sharing issues are blocked by the filter too,
including TorrentFreak .
TorrentFreak spoke with the Open Rights Group (ORG), who have been very critical of the filtering schemes in the UK. According to Executive Director Jim Killock, Sky is not the only problem here, as other UK ISPs employ
overbroad blocking schemes, including the older mobile network filters. To find out what is being blocked exactly, ORG has been building its own checking tools , as well as a website where false positives can be reported.
Whether anything can be
done against the overblocking and false positives that are reported remains to be seen. For now all legitimate file-sharing services and sites remain blocked, including the article you are reading right now.
Adult content blocking systems used by major ISPs are blocking websites offering sex education and advice on sexual health and porn addiction, the BBC has learned.
The four major internet companies have started to roll out so-called porn filters
to their users. BT launched its filter this week , Virgin has a pilot programme ahead of a full launch early in 2014, and Sky's was turned on a month ago. TalkTalk's blocking system started in May 2011.
Newsnight also discovered all the major ISPs
that have launched full default filters are also failing to block hardcore porn-hosting sites.
Among the sites TalkTalk blocked as pornographic was BishUK.com , an award-winning British sex education site, which receives more than a million
visits each year. TalkTalk also lists Edinburgh Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre website as pornographic. The company also blocked a programme ran by sex education experts, taught to 81,000 American children that has been in development for
more than 20 years.
The TalkTalk system failed to block 7% of the 68 pornographic websites tested by Newsnight.
Sky's filter fared much better, blocking 99% of sites, but it did block six porn-addiction sites.
BT blocked sites
including Sexual Health Scotland , Doncaster Domestic Abuse Helpline , and Reducing The Risk , a site which tackles domestic abuse.
Justin Hancock runs BishUK and was not aware his site was being blocked by some systems until he was alerted by
Newsnight. He said:
It's really frustrating because I'm trying to provide a sex education site for young people and it's hard enough directing young people to good quality information on the internet.
They might fix my site in the short-term but what about all the other sites that are out there for young people, not just sex education sites... who are TalkTalk to say what is allowed and isn't?
Offsite Article: 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.
The second time we met was in the Sky News studio. I know you remember me, because you described me as a "responsible pornographer". I felt dirty. I tried to put two questions to you, but you talked over them, as
politicians are trained to do. So here are those questions again:
I'm a parent: are you suggesting that my partner and I should censor our home Internet connection because we happen to have a child in the house? Should parents set their filters on or off?
How can you prevent a repeat of the huge overblocking problem that already appears on mobile networks?
Since you wouldn't answer these, I will: 1) There is no sense in a filter that affects a whole household rather than individuals; 2) You can't prevent overblocking. You can promise to, just as you can promise to stop the tide.
But you can't. It's impossible.
All of the country's mobile operators implement website blocking systems in the name of child protection. They are turned on by default, and only get removed by a minority of people, and are largely unregulated.
The most important thing to know about
these mobile website blockers, though, is this: they are terrible at their job.
Over the years, many websites have found themselves the victim of a phenomenon known as overblocking , where the filters seem to arbitrarily censor them from
millions of subscribers. This may sound like a storm in a teacup (who doesn't want to look out for kids?) but for many website owners, being hit by an overblock can be more than just irritating: it can be potentially threatening to your business.
Over the last month or so, I've been documenting the process we've been going through after we discovered that Orange was overblocking GigaOM and preventing mobile readers from accessing our site . We did manage to get the block lifted , but what
became even more frustrating than the overblock itself was trying to understand why it had happened.
But now, it turns out, we may have an actual answer --- and it's proof positive of the totally ludicrous, crude nature of the filtering that goes
on. Here's the bottom line: Orange's child protection filter, Safeguard, simply prevents people from reading anything that looks like a blog.
The company sent me an official statement explaining their position (my emphasis):
We would urge websites who feel they have been incorrectly categorised, or those who would like to register a complaint, to use the feedback tool provided on the Orange Safeguard landing page users are presented with when a site is
blocked. We will aim to investigate and rectify any problems as quickly as possible. GigaOM was blocked by our third party monitoring system as it was categorised incorrectly as a blog,
So, essentially, Safeguard divides the web into
categories of content. Some of it is OK: things like news services or big, well-known websites. Meanwhile, pretty much any site that's categorized as containing user-generated content gets filtered by default --- and that includes blogs, forums, chat
sites and many more. That's it.
A man using the British Library's wi-fi network was denied access to an online version of Shakespeare's Hamlet because the text contained violent content .
Author Mark Forsyth was writing his book in the library, and needed to check a
line from the famous play. He revealed on his blog that the filter had logged his attempt to access the page.
The British Library said the fault was caused by a newly installed wi-fi service from a third-party provider.
A spokesperson for
the British Library said Hamlet had since been made accessible.
Internet filters have recently come under increased scrutiny, after the government announced that pornography will be automatically blocked by UK internet providers, unless customers
choose otherwise. In general the most minute examples of a few words alluding to adult content can be enough to trigger a block. The software then errs on the side of caution and unfairly blocks many websites.
And of course these companies show
little concern about legitimate businesses that suffer as a result.
Prof Ross Anderson, a security expert at Cambridge University, told the BBC that internet filters were pointless and that it was completely inappropriate to have one
in the British Library. He added:
Everything that is legal should be available over the library's wi-fi network. The only things they should block are the few dozen books against which there are court judgements in the
UK. One of the functions of deposit libraries is to keep everything, including smut.
Meanwhile one filter maker has a bit of a Gerald Ratner moment
Some customers of newly filtered ISPs are finding that porn is still getting through , but bona fide sites are being blocked . That's because filter algorithms struggle to distinguish between porn and legitimate sites, like lingerie
None of these systems are perfect, says George Anderson from online filtering security firm Webroot:
If you're an underwear site that's pretty close [to a porn site] and you
get blocked because of this ban, that's going to cause issues.