Mobile web blocking: what it reveals about porn filtering plans

Web filtering has been high on the political agenda recently, with discussions centring on who should be responsible for what children see online.

The burden of responsibility is increasingly shifting towards tech firms, operators and ISPs who, MPs believe, have the tech know-how and the money to clean up the internet.

While there is no legislation forcing the four major ISPs – BT, TalkTalk, Virgin and Sky – to manage adult content, all have pledged to implement network-level filters before the end of the year, meaning consumers will have to make an “active choice” about whether porn sites and the like are blocked.

That idea is similar to a filtering system used by mobile operators since 2004 to keep children from viewing adult content – and that too is heavily criticised by campaigners.

Mobile blocking

All mobile operators have default parental-control filters, which can be turned up by calling your supplier and proving your age.

O2, Vodafone, Virgin, Three and EE banded together to set up the Independent Mobile Classification Body, establishing a framework to help determine what should and shouldn’t be blocked. Last updated in 2009, the framework doesn’t actually classify individual sites itself, passing that responsibility to content providers.

It does outline some thematic guidance, so blocked content would generally include child abuse, porn, sites that feature swearing, violence, drugs or torture.

Since the IMCB doesn’t maintain a list of banned web pages, it’s up to the operators to determine what gets filtered and how, so mobile operators won’t all block the same sites.

EE offers two levels of filtering – one that blocks 18-rated content, and another that also restricts access to Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites. Vodafone, Three and O2, by contrast, only offer a single filter that’s switched on by default, but none go into detail about what’s blocked or why.

It’s usually up to the customer to opt out of that default level of filtering, usually by providing a registered credit card or a driving licence to prove they’re over 18.

That’s not consistent either, however. Since you’ll usually have to prove your identity when signing up for a monthly contract, Three removes the filter automatically – but the other operators don’t.

Holes in EE’s filters

The Open Rights Group (ORG) keeps an eye on how operators block sites and recently conducted a test on EE’s Safeguard.

It found the operator blocks the YouTube site entirely if the strictest filter is switched on – which EE admits openly on its site.

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