Internet access: Are you being subjected to ‘private sector censorship’ ?

What – or who – is restricting what you can see online? The Big Issue searches out the mysterious filters...

Do you want to access adult material at home? It is a question that everyone who sets up a new broadband connection has to answer, and by the end of the year all other internet users in the UK will be asked the same.

In July 2013, David Cameron promised, “One click to protect your whole home and keep your children safe”, and pressured the UK’s four main ISPs [internet service providers] – BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media – to offer customers the option to filter what websites their household can access.

But a report by regulator Ofcom last month found that less than 15 per cent of households have taken up the option to block adult content.

So does that mean Britons are a bunch of porn-famished fiends? Oh behave! It turns out that it is not just naughty videos that these filters are filtering.

Despite Cameron’s speech focusing entirely on the “corrosive” effect of pornography on children – which is an important and admirable issue to address – the ISPs’ filters are blocking a wide variety of websites that fall under the following categories: hate, violence, drugs, crime, hacking, self-harm and suicide. Many gambling and dating sites, as well as social networks, are also blocked, depending on the level of filtering selected by the customer.

This was not done in parliament, these were private conversations between the government and internet service providers

When you access a website your computer sends a request to your ISP, which connects you to the site and relays the data back to you. At that stage the ISP will block content depending on your settings and location. A test of more than 200,000 websites conducted by the Open Rights Group, which campaigns to protect freedom on the internet, found that almost 20 per cent were blocked by at least one ISP. Critics worry this marks the start of increased covert censorship.

“There is a lack of transparency,” says Pam Cowburn of the Open Rights Group. “This was not done in parliament, these were private conversations between the government and internet service providers.

“Obviously there is illegal content that should be removed, and there are organisations such as the Internet Watch Foundation that does that, but these filters are about legal content.”

Cowburn explains there is little information about what is filtered and there are differences between ISPs. For example, dating sites are filtered by all of the big four except Virgin Media, which happens to run its own.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

Sometimes the systems cannot correctly identify a website’s content. Many that provide advice about sexual health or drugs risk being hidden from those who need to access them most. Websites that have mistakenly been blocked include BishUK, an award-winning sex education site, Changing Attitude, a charity offering support to gay Christians, Sexual Health Scotland, which is run by the Scottish Government, and the Edinburgh Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse centre, whose site was classed as “pornographic”.

Derek Williams runs two websites – ukcia.org, containing 20 years’ worth of information about cannabis research, and clear-uk.org, which campaigns for cannabis reform. “Clear is definitely not a pro-cannabis site,” he says. “It is about lobbying the government about the law and the impact prohibition has on society.”

Clear is currently blocked by BT and Sky, while UKCIA is blocked by all four main ISPs. “I’ve contacted BT who told me it is non-negotiable. TalkTalk were a nightmare to get through to and eventually decided they couldn’t deal with me because I wasn’t a customer, Virgin Media haven’t responded at all despite trying several times now – and I am a customer.”

The Big Issue contacted Virgin Media to find out how websites that are filtered can get themselves unblocked. A spokesperson said: “If someone thinks a website has been wrongly blocked, we ask them to drop us a line and we’ll review and, if appropriate, lift the block.”

“Done that,” Williams says. “No response. I absolutely understand the desire to protect children but there should be guidelines about what is acceptable and what isn’t. Do they block the whole website because of one page, one comment from one user? I don’t know, no one knows.

“Nobody tells us we’re going to be blocked. There is no central place to appeal, they are not accountable to anybody. Imagine you had a library where certain sections are unavailable because somebody has decided they aren’t suitable. It is exactly the same thing.

“It seems this is just the government’s way of getting rid of debates they don’t want us to have. The easiest way to stop a debate is to restrict access to information about it.”

The system identifies the content of a site by searching for designated key words and phrases but it is more difficult to identify the context. Somebody somewhere is deciding what material should be restricted.

A recent study by US-based Students for Sensible Drug Policy, who found themselves blocked by many UK filters, backs up Derek Williams’ suspicions. They found that leading drug policy reform organisations were almost entirely blocked by filters, while websites supportive of anti-drug measures were not.

Another man who is no stranger to conspiracy is Guido Fawkes, who runs the explosive parliamentary blog order-order.com, which has been blocked by TalkTalk.

“We’re also blocked across much of Whitehall and by software used by many banks and law firms,” he says. A devilish plot by the bigwigs to dodge Fawkes’ political assassinations? “Cock-up and employers’ decisions,” Guido concludes. “Theoretically they are a form of passive censorship. It is up to consumers to object, change telecom provider if you don’t like it.”

A TalkTalk spokesman explains that because order-order.com was a site that allows readers to create online profiles, it is classed as social media and therefore inaccessible to customers who have selected to filter that category.

“Our filtering is working really well. Homesafe is enabled by roughly the same percentage of households that have children so it shows that customers appreciate having the option.”

TalkTalk must be doing something differently to the other ISPs. Their filters are used by 36 per cent of their customers, while the ones from BT, Sky and Virgin Media are used by only five, eight and four per cent respectively. The TalkTalk spokesman explained that their filtering system is automated to an extent, whereby algorithms categorise websites, added to the sytem once customers come across them.

We’re also blocked across much of Whitehall and by software used by many banks and law firms

ISPs outsource their filtering operations to companies that Derek Williams and the Open Rights Group agree are difficult to trace. TalkTalk told The Big Issue they work with Symantec, makers of Norton Antivirus, while Virgin Media employ CYREN to compile the list of websites that should be blocked.

CYREN’s system certainly works very effectively. On emailing their press office, I received this response: Delivery has failed to these recipients or groups. Your message can’t be delivered because delivery to this address is restricted.

Nevertheless, I managed to contact their senior vice president Brett Wilson who detailed some of the work they do. “Using proprietary algorithms that analyse website content – both words and images – CYREN places the site into any of 64 different categories,” says Wilson.

“Very occasionally the system cannot definitively determine the correct categories on its own and the site is placed in a queue for a data analyst to make the final decision.

“Many CYREN partners – in this case, service providers and network operators – add their own keywords to the system. As a technology provider, CYREN does not decide what is blocked.

“Ultimately, CYREN’s partners decide what will or will not be seen. The decision to allow or disallow access is entirely theirs.”

CYREN and other companies no doubt do the best job they can while content is produced at an ever-mushrooming rate. It is estimated that only one in 1,000 websites are wrongly blocked but that assumes that the websites being rightly blocked should indeed be blocked in the first place.

On CYREN’s list of the 64 categories alongside ones that apply to parental controls such as ‘Illegal Drugs’, ‘Nudity’ and ‘Violence’ are ‘Tasteless’, ‘School Cheating’ and ‘Sex Education’. One does not envy the data analyst in America who has to decide what may or may not be considered tasteless in the UK, never mind what kind of sex education they believe should fall foul of the filters.

Andy Phippen is Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at Plymouth University. He studies how children use technology: “We don’t know how these judgements are being made. This is private sector censorship.

“If you’ve got a tech-savvy 15-year-old who wants to find pornography, whether you put on a filter or not they will probably find it. Whereas if you have a less tech-savvy 15-year-old who is looking for information about being gay and finds it blocked, they might be deterred from getting it.

The idea that technology solves what are essentially social problems manifested through the internet is incredibly naïve

“Filtering is presented as a solution where it clearly isn’t one. The idea that technology solves what are essentially social problems manifested through the internet is incredibly naïve.”

Phippen explains that if we really want to protect our children online we have to alter our offline behaviour. “In school, all children get as compulsory sexual education is the biology of reproduction, nothing about consent, respect, sexuality or the influence of pornography. It is tired and lazy stuff.

“Parents ask me all the time, ‘How do you have a conversation with your child about porn?’ You don’t, you just have a relationship with your child so if they want to ask you those sorts of questions they feel they can.”

Why Mark Zuckerberg wants to know who you dated last night…

Is Facebook secretly controlling your phone – reading your texts, checking out your contacts, even watching you through your camera?

That is the rumour spreading (mostly through posts on Facebook itself) about the company’s Messenger app, which apart from allowing users to send instant messages to their friends, asks for permission to directly call phone numbers, read your phone status and memory, read and edit your text massages, take pictures and video, record audio, read your call log and contacts, and modify or delete the contents of your SD card…

Peter Martinazzi, from Facebook’s Messenger Team, countered claims that the company is monitoring your every move and message. “If you want to send a selfie to a friend, the app needs permission to turn on your phone’s camera and capture that photo,” he explains. “We don’t turn on your camera or microphone when you aren’t using the app.”

“Facebook wants as much data as possible, it’s quite open about that,” says Daniel Booth, group editor of the magazines Computer Active and Web User. “If you say you are getting married you will be plastered with adverts but this is all algorithm-led.

“If you said you had a great time with so-and-so last night, nobody at Facebook HQ is going to see that and think, oh what a dirty old sod. But you might see an advert afterwards for a dating website.

“You are going to struggle to keep the internet going without advertising,” he continues. “The industry would argue that it is far more useful to a consumer to see adverts that they are actually interested in rather than those they are not.

“Facebook has absolutely no interest in what you are saying except in how it can make them money. The ultimate goal of companies like Facebook and Google is to reduce the amount of manpower they have and make everything automated.”

Big Brother’s all-seeing eye is enormous but with Facebook’s app being used by two billion people, that is far too many to bother spying on – especially if Big Brother turns out to be an automated system that does not even have any eyes.