The Great Firewall of Britain: Assistance Requested

Every since the Internet started, I have been worried that big business and government would try to take control of it away from ordinary individuals, to the detriment of small businesses and minorities. It has taken a while, but that now appears to be happening in the UK. I make a point of getting my Internet service from a small, business-focused ISP, but most people in the UK will get their home and mobile service from large utility companies, and they are starting to find that sites are being blocked.

It is all done with the best of intentions, of course. For a long time now, tabloid newspapers and other purveyors of Moral Panic have been complaining that the Internet allows children access to pornography. As public displays of pornography are generally only available in tabloid newspapers, and apparently the ladies toilets of hip London restaurants, Something Must Be Done.

So, the Government passed the usual sort of Something Must Be Done Act, and accordingly something largely useless was done. ISPs agreed to filter out “porn”. Lots of people who know stuff about computers said that this would end in tears. No one took any notice because Something Must be Done and we had to Think Of The Children. Now we are suffering the consequences.

A lot of the problem is that people don’t know what is being blocked, or why. I suspect that the support staff at the ISPs don’t understand the system very well, and don’t have much ability to fix issues. It may well be that companies have been buying third party software that they don’t fully understand, and which may contain proprietary features that they are not even allowed to query.

The results, however, are pretty clear. Chaos is being caused. Lots of people are upset. It is not hard to see why. O2, possibly uniquely, have provided a website through which you can check whether your site is blocked or not. I tested some of my sites, most importantly the bookstore, which is rather important to me from a business point of view. This is what I got back.

WTB blocking

That didn’t worry me too much. The site does, after all, encourage people to spend money. I can see parents wanting to restrict access to such things. But just to be sure I checked the competition. Here’s what I got for Amazon.

Amazon blocking

As you can see, there is a difference. It is not clear what that means, and O2 does not provide any explanation. But the only explanation I can come up with is that kids can be blocked from buying anything on both sites, but they are blocked from browsing mine, whereas they are not blocked from browsing Amazon. Given that they are likely to sell all of the books that I sell, I don’t see why that should be the case. Indeed, O2 appears to be giving preferential treatment to a big, powerful company.

Just to be sure, I checked a few other bookstore sites. They all came up similar to mine. Even Waterstones.

Waterstones blocking

So clearly the list of companies with powerful lawyers that O2 is afraid of and prepared to make exceptions for is quite short.

When queried on this, O2 tend to hide behind bureaucracy. Their Twitter account points people at this document which talks about how mobile Internet providers have got together to agree on a censorship scheme. However, that doesn’t explain in any way how these censorship decisions are made. Instead it talks about sites being, “classified suitable for those aged 18 and over”. Any site which is not so-classified may be subject to parental blocking.

As traffic on Twitter today has shown, many, many sites are being classified as subject to parental blocking. Those include the Wizards’ Tower Press site, Salon Futura and Emerald City. I checked with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to see what they think ought to disqualify something from being views by people under 18. The list is here. What of this am I actually guilty of? Strong violence or horror? No. Actual sex? No. Discriminatory language and behavior? I hope not. About the only think I could think of that might warrant such a classification is the occasional use of “fuck” or “cunt”.

Whoops, now this site is going to go on the block list.

Part of the problem is that the classification scheme for Internet censorship has only one cut-off point, at 18 years of age. Film censorship has several: 12, 15 and 18. It turns out that you can do almost anything you would do in an adult film for 15-rated films, except show actual sex and use “cunt”. 15+ teenagers using the Internet don’t get that option.

By the way, I did a quick check on Salon Futura. It ought to classify for a 15 rating. It fails the Internet censorship rules because it has a couple of uses of “fuck”. Karen Burnham and Sam Jordison, you are very bad people.

Another problem is that, as I understand it, parental controls are turned on by default. Lots of people either won’t know that they are on, or won’t be able to turn them off. It is opt-out censorship, not opt-in.

Finally, we don’t actually know how most of the ISPs interpret the need for parental controls. Where we do, what we see is horrific. The guidelines that O2 pointed to are for mobile providers. Home Internet providers do not use the same rules. BT has published a list of the categories under which parents will be able to block access, and it goes well beyond what the BBFC would do. For example, parents are able to block off access to the official websites of pop groups (but not to websites of sports clubs), to sites giving fashion and beauty tips, and even to search engines. Perhaps most controversially they can block sites on the grounds that they provide “sex education”. This can mean something as seemingly obvious as teaching “respect for a partner” and, inevitably, “gay and lesbian lifestyle”. It doesn’t mention trans lifestyles, but I’m betting they are covered too.

What exactly does “gay and lesbian lifestyle” mean? Well, it is standard homophobe code for anything that presents being gay or lesbian and in any way normal or acceptable. It is Section 28, or the new laws in Russia, being given to parents to implement in their homes. Does anyone ever ask to censor sites that portray “heterosexual lifestyle”? Of course not. And by the way my “trans lifestyle” includes eating, sleeping, reading, doing housework, running my businesses, and indeed everything else that I do because I am guilty of Living While Trans.

Here too we have come full circle. Teenagers desperately need advice on sex. They need support if they think they may be one of QUILTBAG. They need to know the risks of sexual contact. Parents are often the last people they will go to for such advice. The Internet has been a valuable resource for very many of my young trans friends. So we start by saying, “Will No One Think Of The Children”, and end by putting kids in danger. Well done, government.

Anyway, I did say at the top that I would appreciate some assistance. Most companies have not been as helpful as O2 and BT. With many of them there is no way to check whether your site has been blocked except by trying to access it over a connection supplied by a specific provider. Nor, indeed, is there any central point where you can complain if you think that your site has been unfairly blocked. So I’m hoping that UK readers will be able to test my various sites for me using their own connections and report back. I am particularly interested in cases in which sites are blocked outside of the parental control system, and where my bookstore is blocked but Amazon and other larger competitors are not. Please report in comments if you notice anything. And thank you for any help you can give.

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3 Responses to The Great Firewall of Britain: Assistance Requested

  1. Gav says:

    Oddly, Gavreads.co.uk gets blocked on both O2 policy and Entertainment.

    Worrying trend.

  2. Stephen says:

    My partner has just pointed out to me that Amazon sells sex toys, so their website should have all the same restrictions as a site like Ann Summers. Shows there is no logic behind the classifications.

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