Almost one in five websites are blocked by the UK's internet service providers' filters, according to the Open Rights Group. Using an in-house developed tool, the digital rights organisation have tested the top 100,000 sites on the web and found that many of the 20 percent blocked by filters—which are intended to protect kids from inappropriate content—included innocuous, inoffensive or educational content.
For example, a website used to sell and service Porsches is blocked by O2, while TalkTalk denies access to a feminist rights blog. Other blocked sites include the political blog Guido Fawkes, whose editor Paul Staines said: "We would really appreciate it if TalkTalk would remove us from their block list. The only people who block us are them and the Chinese government."
Open Rights Group have launched the tool they used to test sites, which means anyone can check if a website has been filtered and keep track of a running total of blocked sites. At the time of publication, the number of blocked sites had risen since the initial launch to over 22,500.
As for the point of all this, Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, said: “Through the Blocked project we wanted to find out about the impact of web filters. Already, our reports are showing that almost one in five websites tested are blocked, and that the problem of overblocking seems much bigger than we thought. Different ISPs are blocking different sites and the result is that many people, from businesses to bloggers, are being affected because people can’t access their websites."
The use of these filters by ISPs is part of a UK government drive to make sure that only over-18s see "adult content" on the web. Prime Minister David Cameron's “porn filters” have been shown to block a load of other stuff before, from sex education sites to information on hacking, but this Open Rights Group study shows just how widespread the filters have become.
“Obviously some of the sites are just completely mistakenly blocked,” Pam Cowburn, an Open Rights Group representative told me.
I asked Pam why so many sites that are not hosting 18+ material are being stopped by the filters. Is it the ISPs' algorithms that are at fault, or overreaching filtering policies in general?
“This is part of the problem,” she said. “There isn't much transparency about how the filters are being set.”
Indeed, although the ISPs detail what sort of themes they block—such as pornography and drugs—it isn't made clear how these filters really work, meaning that it can be hard to know why a seemingly innocuous site might have been blacklisted. It can additionally be very difficult to find out how to 'un-block' a site that, as a paying adult customer, you want to access. According to the Open Rights Group, mother-of-one Marielle was “humiliated” when she tried to access a post-partum care site on her phone.
“The manager told me that I couldn’t access filtered articles without entering a four-digit pin every time I wanted to read a filtered article because I had a PAYG [pay-as-you-go] plan,” she said. Marielle sent a report to Three, the ISP in question, to highlight that the site had been mistakenly filtered, but didn't receive a response.
I contacted TalkTalk, the ISP that blocked political blog Guido Fawkes, to ask why that was the case. They didn't reply in time for publication, but Cowburn admitted that for TalkTalk, “We've been testing on a slightly higher default setting than they would normally recommend when you first sign up.” Bearing this in mind, Guido Fawkes and other sites may not be blocked by TalkTalk for all customers.
For BT Broadband, Open Rights Group set their filtering to “moderate,” which blocks nudity; weapons and violence; and gambling and social networking. When testing Sky Broadband, the settings were turned up to “13,” which Sky says is “suitable for teenagers and above.” This denies access to information about suicide and self harm; anonymisers, filesharing and hacking; and dating.
When comparing the filters across ISPs, which sites are blocked is pretty inconsistent. There isn't a standard level of protection—or accidental censorship—across the country, which makes it difficult for customers to choose which ISP might have a plan appropriate for them.
But if a parent switches off their ISPs filters, it undermines the whole idea of them in the first place—aren't they then going to expose their children to a wide open version of the web? Maybe, but Cowburn said that, “Parents shouldn’t feel guilt tripped into thinking that they are failing to protect their children if they don’t switch filters on. The best way to keep kids safe online is by giving them the skills and education they need to navigate the web safely.”
Overall, it looks like the UK's porn filters are much more broken that initially thought, and a lack of transparency from the ISPs makes it difficult to even pin down what the problem is. Until that changes, customers will need to decide between filters that are perhaps either too heavy-handed, or don't offer an adequate level of protection for their initial purpose—protecting children.