Mobile web blocking: what it reveals about porn filtering plans

That should mean a savvy parent who’s switched on the top Safeguard setting on their child’s iPhone can stop them from accessing YouTube, Twitter and other social sites via a browser.

However, the filter is easily circumvented. ORG tested that top-level filter on an iPhone, and found it could simply get around the block using HTTP Secure.

“On the phone here, http://www.twitter.com is blocked, but https://www.twitter.com is not,” policy director Peter Bradwell told us.

The situation is a little more complicated if the phone’s browser automatically redirects the user to an HTTP version of the mobile site, as sometimes happens.

“http://www.youtube.com is blocked, and when using an iPhone, https://www.youtube.com is blocked. This latter result, it seems to us, is because YouTube detects that the user is on Safari for iPhone and redirects to http://m.youtube.com,” said Bradwell – but typing in https://m.youtube.com worked just fine.

And despite listing Picasa and Flickr as blocked sites, ORG found that they could access these sites easily via Safeguard, even with a normal HTTP web address, which Bradwell described as “odd”.

Accidental censorship

That’s just a test on one type of device on one operator, but there’s little to suggest that the others have implemented anything more sophisticated.

I blame policy makers here for pressuring operators to do something, but failing to ask or understand any of the important questions about their effectiveness

ORG also tracks “overblocking”, where operators mistakenly censor legitimate sites.

Its blocking reporting tool allows users to submit blocked URLs and sheds some light on the operators’ opaque process of classifying sites. For example O2 simply says that it blocks “18+ commercial content” on its site, but an ORG test this month found the operator had blocked a hacking slang guide, categorising it as “hacking”.

It also found Vodafone had blocked a site selling lingerie and lighters, labelling it as “tobacco”, despite the fact it didn’t actually sell cigarettes or cigars. No other operator blocked the site.

ORG reported similar erroneous blocks last year, and found that it was “difficult if not impossible” for site owners to get their pages off the blacklist.

“Overblocking is a problem in itself,” it said. “It can mean a business is cut off from a slice of its market. It can simply see people unable to get directions to a bar. It may stop a prominent political organisation from reaching concerned citizens.”

However, Bradwell notes that mobile operators – and now, ISPs – have been given a difficult job by MPs.

“Often the story with mobile network filtering is about shoddy implementation – I blame policy makers here for pressuring [operators] to do something, but failing to ask or understand any of the important questions about their effectiveness,” said Bradwell.

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