Every day millions of British mobile users hit a dead end on their phones, coming across web pages that they are blocked from reading. But it’s not because the sites they’re trying to access are illegal: it’s because they’ve fallen foul of child protection filters.
These filters are used by all of the country’s mobile operators, are generally turned on by default, get removed by a minority of people, and are largely unregulated. All of this has meant that as mobile consumption has boomed, the networks have become the de facto censors of the web in the U.K..
The most important thing to know about these mobile filters, though, is this: they are terrible at their job.
Over the years, many websites have found themselves the victim of a phenomenon known as “overblocking”, where the filters seem to arbitrarily censor them from millions of subscribers. The facts were documented in a recent report that outlined the problem: in their zeal to protect children, operators are screening vast amounts of legitimate content from users.
This may sound like a storm in a teacup (who doesn’t want to look out for kids?) but for many website owners, being hit by an overblock can be more than just irritating: it can be potentially threatening to your business.
Over the last month or so, I’ve been documenting the process we’ve been going through after we discovered that Orange — one of Britain’s biggest mobile operators — was overblocking GigaOM and preventing mobile readers from accessing our site. We did manage to get the block lifted, but what became even more frustrating than the overblock itself was trying to understand why it had happened.
But now, it turns out, we may have an actual answer — and it’s proof positive of the totally ludicrous, crude nature of the filtering that goes on.
Here’s the bottom line: Orange’s child protection filter, Safeguard, simply prevents people from reading anything that looks like a blog.
The company sent me an official statement explaining their position (my emphasis):
“We would urge websites who feel they have been incorrectly categorised, or those who would like to register a complaint, to use the feedback tool provided on the Orange Safeguard landing page users are presented with when a site is blocked. We will aim to investigate and rectify any problems as quickly as possible.”
“GigaOM was blocked by our third party monitoring system as it was categorised incorrectly as a blog, (and at the moment Safeguard blocks blogs, but it will not block them all when the new Child Safety Safeguard goes live later in the year with a new Light setting) and not a professional tech news site, due to the usage of the word ‘blog’ on the site. This has now been rectified. We would like to sincerely apologise again for any inconvenience caused.”
So, essentially, Safeguard divides the web into categories of content. Some of it is OK: things like news services or big, well-known websites. Meanwhile, pretty much any site that’s categorized as containing user-generated content gets filtered by default — and that includes blogs, forums, chat sites and many more. That’s it.
It’s got nothing to do with what’s on the sites themselves, just what category they fall into. Categorized as a blog, GigaOM was unsafe. Categorized as a news site, it’s available for the whole family to read. Nothing to do with analyzing text, pictures, links or even user feedback.
This is crazy not just because legitimate websites can contain all sorts of murky material that you wouldn’t want your kids to see, while blogs and other sorts of user-generated content can be totally family-friendly. It’s crazy because a blogging platform like WordPress is so vast that it’s now responsible for powering one in eight sites on the web — meaning that, effectively, Orange is making a huge chunk of the web go dark for mobile users and nobody’s doing anything about it.
So there you have it, the real reason Orange blocked GigaOM: because they can’t be bothered to try harder.