How mobile networks are policing the web — badly

While the British government considers forcing internet providers to censor the web, it turns out that many European mobile operators are happily acting as censors themselves already — and mistakenly blocking lots of legitimate sites along the way.

According to a report this week from Open Rights Group and the London School of Economics, many local mobile operators are using aggressive — but haphazard — child protection filters by default, leaving adult customers unable to see perfectly ordinary websites instead of preventing kids from accessing adult material.

As the report says (PDF):

“There are serious consequences to badly implemented, default child protection blocking systems. They include restrictions on markets, censorship, a failure to address young people’s diverse needs and a false sense of security for parents.”

The document outlines more than 60 reported cases where websites have been erroneously flagged as containing adult content — and these are just the small number of cases reported to the Open Rights Group’s complaint service.

This really isn’t just an oddity. I regularly run into blocks when browsing news or data online on my phone, which is on a business tariff with Vodafone (s VOD) — surely a product most kids wouldn’t be using.

And in fact, just yesterday we received a message saying that the adult filter for France Telecom-owned (s FTE) Orange was blocking GigaOM.

Now, I know we’re a site for grown-ups, but that’s just silly.

If your operator is deciding on your behalf that what we write is off limits — including now, of course, the fact that we’re telling you that these blocks are faulty — then there’s really no reason to suspect it couldn’t happen to anybody, at any time.

Spreading censorship

And it’s not just in Britain, either. This sort of approach is happening all over Europe, in a variety of ways.

In a piece for Foreign Policy, the author and activist Rebecca Mackinnon outlines some of the incursions being made — and points out that, crucially, none of this is happening because of regulatory pressure.

“This type of problem is serious enough, in enough countries, to have made its way to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Last year, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, delivered an official report to the council that not only condemned the censorship and surveillance practices of authoritarian countries, but also warned of dangerous trends in the democratic world that threaten citizen rights to free expression in the Internet age.

“One of his major concerns is ‘over-broad private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of the law’. He singled out two examples of how governments are, ironically, using law to delegate enforcement responsibilities and functions to the private sector: Britain’s Digital Economy Act, which could potentially disconnect Internet users suspected of illegal downloading, and France’s similar ‘three strikes’ law.

The result of all this?

In the name of protecting us, mobile operators are now becoming the de facto censors of the web, whether we’ve asked them to or not.

Photograph copyright Shutterstock/Pixel 4 images