Mobile web censorship bans wrong sites

children on mock smartphonesLee Jin-man/AP/Press Association Images

A report, from the London School of Economics and the Open Rights Group, has warned that systems designed to stop mobile phone users from accessing pornographic websites are actually preventing them from getting to other sites, which could be damaging businesses.

They say that this needs to be addressed before the government considers introducing these to home broadband networks and cutting these firms off entirely.


Mobile phone networks automatically block pornographic sites to protect children. A survey by Childwise found that 95% of children aged 11–16 owned a mobile phone and 25% of them accessed the internet though it. Given that they are able to do this without supervision, the networks decided to impose the ban, and that if users want to open up their networks to this sort of content they have to do so manually, and provide credit card details to prove they are over 18.

Going wrong

The report agrees with the aims, but says the issue is that the filters they use to block the sites are 'fallible'. It highlights: "Given that there are millions of websites, blacklists are typically created through some form of automated classification process, and are prone to errors."

This means some sites are wrongly blocked. The researchers found, for example, a Sheffield church, a community group in Middlesex, a political blog, the corporate website of a graphic designer, a site advertising holiday villas and The Vault Bar in London were all blocked by one or more of the networks for a period.

The process of getting blocks removed is not simple either. When one member of the church asked for the website to be taken off the list, he was simply sent a text message saying his own phone could now see 18-rated content, but the church could not be taken off the blacklist. The researchers tested the process themselves and said: "Mobile operators' staff often seem uninformed about mobile Internet filtering, and thus poorly trained to help users making complaint."

Bad for business

This is already detrimental. According to Ofcom, 28% of UK adults said they accessed the Internet on their mobile in the first three months of 2011, and all of those users were banned from certain businesses. As the report says: "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."

Its concern is that: "The Communications Bill will include new proposals for Internet filtering to protect children. If they follow a similar blueprint of ISP level filtering as mobile operators, all the problems we have highlighted would be reproduced at a larger scale."

Storm in a teacup?

However, not everyone agrees. Hamish MacLeod, chair of the Mobile Broadband Group argues that there are now supposed to be 644,275,754 active websites to classify and that: "60 misclassified websites does not amount to anything that could reasonably be described as 'censorship', particularly when mobile operators are happy to remove the filters when customers show they are over 18 and will re-classify websites when misclassifications are pointed out to them. This is how the small handful of web sites that get referred to mobile operators each year are already dealt with."

He added: "The MBG will ensure that any misclassifications reported are corrected and will consider the report carefully."

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