Mobile Web Blocking Has Unintended Consequences

Lila Gray

LONDON — While policymakers in the U.K. have declared web filters a top priority, the Open Rights Group and other critics believe that lawmakers are asking ISPs for the impossible —- effective implementation.

In an attempt to bypass formal government regulation of the Internet, Maria Miller and other members of Parliament have pressured the major ISPs to vow self-regulation.

“Often the story with mobile network filtering is about shoddy implementation —- I blame policymakers here for pressuring [operators] to do something but failing to ask or understand any of the important questions about their effectiveness," ORG Policy Director Peter Bradwell said.

BT, TalkTalk, Virgin and Sky have pledged to implement network-level filters to better block porn and other adult content upon consumer request, but the ORG pointed out that the system blacks out innocent content as well.

PCPro.co.uk noted that since each mobile operator has the prerogative to ban what they see fit, the selections across ISPs will be different.

An ORG test revealed that Vodafone had blocked an online store that sold lingerie and lighters, prohibiting it by labeling it “tobacco” although no tobacco products were available through the site. No other ISPs blocked the site.

"Overblocking is a problem in itself," the ORG said in a statement. "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 organization from reaching concerned citizens."

Bradwell found that many of the mobile filters could be easily circumvented anyway.

He tested U.K.-based internet service provider EE’s filter, which includes a blockage of all social major media sites on one of its most stringent settings. Bradwell said that by simply replacing “http” with “https,” he could easily access Twitter.

Similarly, he tested the approach with mobile redirects and found that typing "https://m.youtube.com" into his iPhone yielded instant access to the site.     

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