Apparently not, is the short answer. Yesterday, i noted, somewhat indignantly, that i appear to be on the block list of internet service provider, TalkTalk.
Could this be because i am trans (which obviously is a sexual deviation of the first degree, and has been blocked by some US providers on just those grounds)? Or because i have been a bit of a politi-critic of the entire filtering project?
The answer, i am pleased to reveal today, is neither.
The nature of filtering
Before we cut to the chase, though, and explain what IS going on, here’s a little background to how filtering works. Few sites are ever truly BLOCKED. The ones that are, are mostly associated with material determined by police to feature child abuse or to promote terror activities.
For the rest though, filtering is a process applied on behalf of ISP’s by third party filter providers. These use a variety of methods, including manual inspection and intelligent algorithms to categorise sites according to content. Typical categories include gambling, alcohol, drugs and porn – otherwise a good night out for the Bullingdon Club! – and every site may be evaluated as belonging to one or more category.
Sites will only be blocked on your pc if you have your filters turned on to one or more of the categories provided. So, when one talks of a site “being blocked”, that is usually shorthand for: it is blocked by this or that category of this or that filter.
Once upon a time, filters were an optional extra for all internet users: something you turned on if you felt appropriate. Then, as government decided that the British public was not exactly IT literate, that shifted. Since December 2013, most new broadband packages come with a requirement that individuals decide whether to accept filters or not: and in the next year or so, the same courtesy is likely to be extended to existing broadband subscribers.
Am i being blocked?
How, though, can you tell whether or not you are being blocked? And by whom? The bad news is that you will have great difficulty in finding out. Until December 2013, to their credit, O2 provided a url checker which allowed individuals to check the status of individual sites.
This was withdrawn after a spate of stories suggested that O2’s blocking activity was overbroad. In fact, it was probably no worse than most ISP’s: but individuals were interpreting blocks applied at the highest filter level (i.e., most stringent) as typical of O2 overall, leading to much adverse publicity. Cue removal of a quite useful tool.
At this point, the Open Rights Group stepped in with their Blocked! tool. The principle is simple: ORG regularly attempt to access a range of websites using a probe, running across major UK ISP’s set up, as far as they are aware, with the default filter categories switched on for each.
Their logic? A proportion of customers will simply accept the default filter solution, meaning that their internet access will henceforth filter sites that fit the default.
Yes, but am I being filtered?
As of yesterday, Blocked! understood TalkTalk to be filtering nine categories as default:
– Drugs, alcohol tobacco
– Social networking
On those criteria, all my assorted bloggery would be blocked simply because it is a form of social networking. So nothing smutty: nothing political.
A shame. For a moment, I thought i might have a bit of a story there: political activist filtered on account of her politics/gender! Shock! Horror! But no: it is merely because i blog.
And besides – now its TalkTalk’s turn to be indignant: they don’t include social networking in their default list. Their ever-polite and well-spoken press officer put me right on this: their default categories, arriving helpfully pre-ticked were just six. Three categories – social networking, games and file-sharing – were optional extras.
ORG had got it wrong and, after chatting again to them today, they appear to accept as much. They have amended their tool and as of today, my blogs are no longer shown as inaccessible to TalkTalk filtered users.
Apologies in order?
So are apologies in order? In the sense that Blocked! and, as a result, yours truly stirred a certain amount of mud around the TalkTalk brand, yes. On the other hand, TalkTalk are big boys who have made something of a fetish of their blockery – they were the first major UK ISP to offer it as standard, thereby gaining brownie points with Government – and therefore they should understand that in the face of quite genuine public concern over filtering, they need to be doing better.
Because why did Blocked! get it wrong in the first place? Limited resources, and the fact that they relied on TalkTalk’s own help pages, which appear to show that their default filter does indeed block the nine categories listed above:
Absent evidence to the contrary, i am happy to accept that TalkTalk’s default filter option does NOT block social networking.
Still, finding out WHAT is filtered remains nightmare territory. As well as contacting the Press Office, i also tried the routes available to the wider public. Both phone and twitter took significant time to get any response, while the phone option went round in circles for a bit while the man-on-the-phone insisted on knowing whether i am a TalkTalk Account holder…information that, he freely admitted, was irrelevant to my question about whether my blog was blocked.
Helpfully, he did volunteer that if i had been blocked it was probably “because it met some of the criteria according to which it ought to have been blocked”: almost funny, if that was not very similar to the response from press offices across the ISP piste for the last six months. For the most part, if something is blocked, they know in general why…but they don’t know or are unable to tell precisely why.
Now multiply that by ten, which is the number of ISP’s that you probably need to keep checks on, and you can see how frustrating this is.
If ISP’s are going to run software that is capable of blocking my blog or your blog or my business or my news outlet, i want to know straight away that it is being blocked.
I want to know which ISP’s are blocking it and precisely what it is in my site that has led to the block being put in place. I don’t expect to have to justify why i wish to know. Nor do i consider it reasonable to have to go cap in hand to each of ten ISP’s to ask.
Which is why we need something like Blocked! – and why the thing that is like Blocked! should, in the end, be run and funded not by independent campaigners who will, without intimate insider knowledge of the industry they are monitoring, inevitably get it wrong sometime. It should be run and funded as a public service by the industry.
And if the industry aren’t prepared to do that, then they must be prepared for the occasional panic. They should understand that those on the outside will occasionally see them as committing badness when they aren’t.
And sooner or later, they should expect to be sued when a promising new business finds itself in deep financial troubles because something went wrong on the filtering front and something they did to “protect” the masses ended up destroying an individual.