Sunday, December 22, 2013

The UK "Porn" Filter Blocks Kids' Access To Tech, Civil Liberties Websites

It fell to the UK Tories to actually implement the Nanny State. Too bad Nanny Tory does not want kinds to read up on tech web sites, or civil liberties ones. Read on for a small sample of what the filter blocks, from a blocked-by-default tech writer.

[Updated 2x, scroll down]

Regular readers (at least those of you who also follow me on twitter) will know that I'm more than a little skeptical of censorship in general. And you may have seen, as evidenced by this tweet that I found the decision to implement a nationwide, on-by-default-but-possible-to-opt-out-of web filtering scheme in the UK to be a seriously stupid idea.

But then I was never very likely to become a UK resident or anything more than a very temporary customer of any UK ISP during visits to the country, so I did not give the matter another thought until today, when this tweet announced that you could indeed check whether your web site was blocked. The tweet points you to http://urlchecker.o2.co.uk/urlcheck.aspx, which appears to be a checking engine for UK ISP O2, which is among the ISPs to implement the blocking regime.

I used that URL checker to find the blocking status of various sites where I'm either part or the content-generating team or sites that I find interesting enough to visit every now and then. The sites appear in the semi-random order that I visited them on December 22, 2013, starting a little after 16:00 CET:

bsdly.net: I checked my own personal web site first, www.bsdly.net. I was a bit surprised to find that it was blocked in the default Parental control regime. Users of the archive.org Internet Wayback Machine may be able to find one page that contained a reference to a picture of "a blonde chick with a cute pussy", but the intrepid searcher will find that the picture in question in fact was of juvenile poultry and felines, respectively. The site is mainly tech content, with some resources such as the hourly updated list of greytrapped spam senders (see eg this blog post for some explanation of that list and its purpose).

nuug.no: Next up I tried the national Norwegian Unix Users' group web site www.nuug.no, with a somewhat odd result - "The URL has not yet been classified. If you would like it to be classified please press Reclassify URL". There was no Reclassify URL option visible in the web interface, but I would assume that in a default to block regime, the site would be blocked anyway. It would be nice to have confirmation of this from actual O2 customers or other people in the UK.

But NUUG hosts a few specific items I care about, such as my NUUG home page with links to slides from my talks and other resources I've produced over the years. Entering http://home.nuug.no and http://home.nuug.no/~peter/pf/ (the path to my PF tutorial material) both produced an "Invalid URL" message. This looks like bug in the URL checker code, but once again it would be nice to have confirmation from persons who are UK residents and/or O2 customers about the blocking status for those URLs.

usenix.org:Next I tried www.usenix.org, the main site for USENIX, the US-based but actually quite international Unix user group. This also turned out to be apparently blocked in the Parental control regime.

ukuug.org and flossuk.org: But if you're a UK resident, your first port of call for finding out about Unix-like systems is likely to be UK Unix User Group instead, so I checked both www.ukuug.org and flossuk.org, and both showed up as blocked in the Parental control regime (ukuug.org, flossuk.org).

So it appears that it's the official line that kids under 12 in the UK should not be taught about free or open source software, according to the default filtering settings.

eff.org: You will have guessed by now that I'm a civil liberties man, so the next site URL I tried was www.eff.org, which was also blocked by the Parental Control regime. So UK kids need protection from learning about civil liberties and privacy online.

amnesty.org.uk: A little closer to home for UK kids, I thought perhaps a thoroughly benign organization such as Amnesty International would somehow be pre-approved. But no go: I tried the UK web site, amnesty.org.uk, and it, to was blocked by the Parental Control regime. UK kids apparently need to be shielded from the sly propaganda of an organization that has worked, among other things for releasing political prisoners and against cruel and unusual punishment such as the death penalty everywhere.

slashdot.org: Next up in my quasi-random sequence was the tech new site slashdot.org, which may at times be informal in tone, but still so popular that I was somewhat surprised to find that it, too was blocked by the Parental Control regime.

linuxtoday.com: Another popular tech news site is linuxtoday.com, with, as the name says, has a free and open source software slant. Like slashdot, this one was also blocked by the Parental Control regime.

bsdly.blogspot.com: Circling back to my own turf, I decided to check the site where I publish the most often, bsdly.blogspot.com. By this time I wasn't terribly surprised to find that my writing too has fallen afould of something or other and is by default blocked by the Parental Control regime.

nostarch.com: Blocking an individual writer most people probably haven't heard about in a default to block regime isn't very surprising, but would they not at least pre-approve well known publishers? I tried nostarch.com (home of among others a series of LEGO-themed tech/science books for kids as well as Manga guides to various sciences, as well as various BSD and Linux books). No matter, they too were blocked by the Parental Control regime.

blogspot.com: Along the same lines as in the nostarch.com case, if they default to block they may well have an unknown scribe blocked, but would they block an entire blogging site's domain? So I tried blogspot.com. The result is that it's apparently registered that the site has "dynamic content" so even the "default safety" settings may end up blocking. But of course, another one that's blocked by the Parental Control regime.

arstechnica.com: I still couldn't see any clear logic besides a probable default to block, so I tried another popular tech news site, arstechnica.com. I was a bit annoyed, but not too surprised that this too was blocked by the Parental Control regime.

The last four I tried mainly to get confirmation of what I already suspected:

www.openbsd.org: What could possibly be offensive or subversive about the most secure free operating system's website? I don't know, but the site is apparently too risky for minors, blocked by the Parental Control regime as it is.

undeadly.org: The site undeadly.org is possibly marginally better known under the name OpenBSD Journal. It exists to collect and publish news relevant to the OpenBSD operating system, its developers and users. For Nanny only knows what reason, this site was also blocked by the Parental Control regime.

www.freebsd.org: www.freebsd.org is the home site of FreeBSD, another fairly popular free BSD operating system (which among others Apple has found useful as a source of code that works better in a public maintenance regime). I thought perhaps the incrementally larger community size would have put this site on Nanny's horizon, but apparently not: FreeBSD.org remains blocked by the Parental Control regime.

www.geekculture.com: How about a little geek humor, then? www.geekculture.com is home to several web comics, and The Joy of Tech remains a favorite, even with the marked Apple slant. But apparently that too, is too much for the children of the United Kingdom: Geekculture.com is blocked by the Parental Control regime.

www.linux.com: And finally, the penguins: By now it should not surprise anyone that www.linux.com, a common starting point for anyone looking for information about that operating system, like the others is blocked by the Parental Control regime.

So summing up, checking a semi-random collection of mainly fairly mainstream and some rather obscure tech URLs shows that far from focusing on its stated main objective, keeping innocent children away from online porn, the UK Internet filter shuts the UK's children out of a number of valuable IT resources, was well as several important civil liberties resources.

And if this is the true face of Parental Controls, I for one would take using controls like these as a sufficient indicator that the parents in question are in fact not qualified to do their parenting without proper supervision.

If this is an indicator of how the collective of United Kingdom Internet Nannies is to maintain their filtering regime, they are most certainly part of a bigger problem than the one they claim to be working to solve.


If you are a UK resident or other victim of automated censorship, I would like to hear from you. Please submit your story in comments or send me an email at blockage@bsdly.net


Update 2013-12-23 13:05 CET: A reader alerted me to the fact that the URL Checker is down, and that URL now leads to a page that claims the operators are "in the process of reviewing and updating" their offerings.

Update 2013-12-24 19:30 CET: O2 contacted me via twitter direct message, pointing me to their FAQ at http://news.o2.co.uk/2013/12/24/parental-control-questions-answered/. As non-responsive responses go, it was fairly useful, if not entirely constructive. The most useful bit of information is possibly that the service as presented is apparently specific to O2 customers, not the frequently cited national, Tory-backed regime.

As the FAQ document clearly demonstrates, the underlying problem is that some of their customers, for whatever reason, have chosen to leave the monitoring and mentoring of their children's reading to an automated service.

The world contains a multitude of dangers, and most of us, in the UK or elsewhere, would agree that it is a parent's duty both to protect their offspring and to educate them in how to avoid danger or handle problems they encounter.


Ignorance has yet to help anyone solve a problem

There are several ways to protect and educate, and I feel that the approach offered by O2's service is the wrong approach in several important ways. First off, by limiting children's access to information, it strongly recommends choosing ignorance instead of education as the main defense against the perceived evils of the world.

If a person would advise that you chain your children to the wall and burn their library cards, you as a responsible parent would perhaps be reluctant to accept that advice as valid. But O2 has no qualms about offering a commercial service that does just that, only via digital means.

But the engineer in me also compels me to point out that the "Parental Control" is designed only to attack a specific symptom of a wider problem, and it fails to address that problem. And making matters slightly worse, the proposed solution is to apply a technical solution to a human or perhaps social problem.

The real problem is that some number of parents do not feel up to the task of mentoring and educating their children in safe and sensible use of their gadgets and the information that is accessible through the gadgets. Parents failing, or perceiving that they may be failing, to adequately educate or mentor their children is the real problem here. Fix that problem, and your symptoms go away.

If a significant subset of O2's customers feel they are unable to handle their parenting duties, the problem may very well be that society is failing to adequately support parents' needs during their child-rearing years.

The solution may well be political, and may very well involve matters that are best resolved by making a proper choice at the ballot box after well reasoned debates. In the meantime, O2 is only making matters worse by answering the needs of persons who feel the symptoms of the deeper problem by catering to a perhaps understandable, but in fact utterly counterproductive, drive for ignorance.

Ignorance never helped anybody solve a problem. Children need to be nurtured, educated, mentored and stimulated to explore. Please do not force them into ignorance instead.

54 comments:

  1. linux weekly news (lwn.net) blocked.
    debian.org : Blocked
    ubuntu.com: Blocked

    Seems like they really have something against open software...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Am in the UK.
      Never turned of this "parental control" thing.
      Can access all sites listed.
      UK Web Restriction: Not Real.

      Delete
    2. If you already have a connection plan, its not applied to you.

      Its only new accounts.

      Delete
  2. Don't get your panties in a bunch. It would appear 'Parental control' is a whitelist. Only specific children's sites are allowed, everything else is blocked.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What about microsoft.com ?

      Delete
    2. What about apple.com?

      (Yes, it's blocked.)

      Delete
    3. Yeah, www.o2.com is blocked too.

      Delete
    4. I agree, this approach seems a little unscientific-- after establishing that most sites are blocked, you should start looking for the pattern among the UNBLOCKED sites instead, as it'll probably be more significant. It's like a real-life game of Zendo!

      Delete
  3. They've also blocked the BNP (I don't agree with the BNP or anything they stand for, but I don't condone politicial censorship.)

    Also, the PPUK.

    ReplyDelete
  4. There is no "UK Porn Filter". Some ISPs in the UK however are offering services to provide filtering of websites for their customers.
    Other ISPs have stated they will NOT be filtering content e.g. AAISP - http://www.aa.net.uk/kb-broadband-realinternet.html

    ReplyDelete
  5. Honestly, it seems more like a whitelist for u12 than a blacklist.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Not sure what got my site blocked - I mostly post screencasts on how to use programming languages like Smalltalk and Python - http://www.jarober.com

    ReplyDelete
  7. The u12 Parental Control also blocks the BBC! That it is a whitelist with very few entries makes more sense

    ReplyDelete
  8. Newspapers too:
    theguardian.com
    theglobeandmail.ca
    nytimes.com

    ReplyDelete
  9. ITS A FREAKING WHITELIST.

    ReplyDelete
  10. My website jonfr.com/volcano and other related websites are blocked by O2 UK and other ISP in UK under this filter. They seem to block everything on the internet, or good close to 99,9998% of it. There where some kids websites not blocked I did hear on twitter about this insane censorship.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Yup, it's a whitelist. I wouldn't get too worked up about it or paranoid about the UK governments view on free speech, even Google is blocked by default.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The perental control catagory blocks forums/discussion, less the little snow flakes encounter curse words

    ReplyDelete
  13. I think you need to re-test these. I live in the UK and the majority of these sites are NOT blocked

    ReplyDelete
  14. "There was no Reclassify URL option visible"

    Indeed, but the (other) button marked "Continue" will submit the URL you just entered for a check, and you're invited to check back later..

    ReplyDelete
  15. Interesting article that displays the lack of knowledge by the UK policy makers. The O2 broadband service was sold off to Sky as of earlier this year :
    ( see http://www.o2.co.uk/broadband/broadbandchanges )

    ReplyDelete
  16. Via the EFN mailing list, this article turned up, which explains what is currently known about the filter I stumbled upon: http://pseudomonas.dreamwidth.org/120535.html

    It seems the author is intending to map out the blockage on other UK ISPs as well.

    ReplyDelete
  17. What's the point of having the internet in this country now if you can't use it? These people are the huge idiots, and I hope they get castrated for this.

    ReplyDelete
  18. It's a whitelist, pretty much everything is blocked under parental control. By choosing only FOSS sites to be "randomly" checked, you falsely make it seem like this is some kind of vendetta, by the UK gov't, against FOSS. Pretty silly.

    ReplyDelete
  19. "Parental Control" isn't the default; you have to ask for it to be turned on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. On new accounts it is on by default and you must asked for it to be turned off. Existing accounts are the opposite.

      Delete
  20. I've just checked some of the links claimed to be blocked in this article, and the only category they're blocked for is "Parental Control (opt in u12 service)" which clearly states is an "opt in" service. This is O2's own, internal, optional Parental Control system.

    The Torry-led nation-wide filter is clearly not an O2 internal and optional system.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Whilst I am not a fan of censorship, the O2 one, and one on all mobiles, has actually been in existence for a number of years, opt-in and a white list service, where the site is blocked unless it has been screened by someone at O2.

    The new blocks for ADSL providers is an opt out service, and a black list.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Wow, example.com is blocked too. This is stupid.

    ReplyDelete
  23. OH GOD ITS 1984! AN OPT IN MOBILE PROVIDER WHITE LIST!!!!
    Get you fucking facts right before you start spouting shite

    1) o2 arnt even an ISP they are a mobile provider.
    2) This is an opt in white list. Not an opt out black list.
    3) the actual filtering for opt in blacklisting can be seen here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_censorship_in_the_United_Kingdom

    At least be up in arms about the right fucking thing, the uk opt in blacklist is nothing but a political move and thinly veiled censorship. I'm on your side so at least get your facts right.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. O2 aren't just a mobile provider. They have done Broadband for years and was done over BT lines just like Sky. It was only around June-July this year that Sky bought the O2 broadband department.

      I used to work for a call centre that dealt with Sky TV Tech and Billing issues and got quite a few calls about letters being sent regarding Sky offers for previous O2 customers due to the switch over.

      Other than that your comment is spot on

      Delete
  24. It really seems what you're describing is company specific... I have virgin internet and none of the sites you listed are blocked... It really depends on the company you choose which have their own blocking criteria which has nothing to do with the government's recent ban...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. no, the filter is default on for all new accounts, default off for existing accounts.

      Delete
  25. Nice information but i think it is a featured Whitelist. Thanks to provide such kind of information.

    Click here to learn more

    ReplyDelete
  26. Website of the swiss gov: admin.ch
    blocked :D

    ReplyDelete
  27. Greetings from the continent (Bavaria).
    Reading this makes me freeze. The "elite" over here envies your government, because they want such "toys" also.

    To me it seems to be a whitelist scheme, only known "good" sites are allowed.

    Did you do the inverse test? Can children access the church's websites (despite the recent history of paedophilia among some churches' menbers)?

    ReplyDelete
  28. Does anybody know how the filter works? Is it DPI based (like in china) or DNS based (like the former one in Germany)?
    Would be great if anybody kows more about this.

    ReplyDelete
  29. http://www.technovia.co.uk/2013/12/uk-national-firewall-doesnt-block-boing-boing-eff-slashdot.html

    ReplyDelete
  30. UK censorship is not imposed solely on children. It is present in
    public access portals and restaurants too. In other words, it is
    imposed on anyone that can't afford a home internet connection.

    These schemes always make mistakes, and these examples are that that
    has not changed. But let's not focus on the mistakes. Even if they
    could fix all the mistakes, which they can't, that would not make
    censorship acceptable. Fixing 90% of the mistakes, which maybe they
    could do, would not make it acceptable either. Censorship is evil and
    must be defeated.

    ReplyDelete
  31. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Whitelist's are the Blacklists of tomorrow and as lesser white there is as more safe formour children!1!

    Serious, this, your current opt-in "but it doesn't hit me" is only yet. The door got open, ugly things will be pushed to enter. Step by step, business as usual.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Hate to break it to you but this url checker is for o2 mobile connections. Mobile filters have been live in the UK for years as a means for parents to have a lot of control over what their kids are accessing on the mobile phones.

    This isn't a broadband filter checker. Sorry you wasted your time. But it shows that you didn't give the matter any thought until you wrote this article.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Lengthy discussion of this article in https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6979023

    ReplyDelete
  35. The blocked sites will eventually drop off Google's first page in the searches for any keywords because Google nowadays mainly ranks sites for pupularity and how long people read each article.

    Blocked sites drop in "pupularity", hance get downgraded in Google. That will be a vicious circle to the bottom, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Eventually, these sites have "ceased to exist" for all practical purposes, even for those without the filter.

    ReplyDelete
  36. As a citizen of a country in industrial and commercial competition against the UK, I can only cheer. I hope that the rest of Europe and all of Asia adopt the same policies.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Hi there, we just wanted to give you a bit more information about what's happened. The whole focus has been around our URL checker which has very limited info and the ‘parental control’ category that has led people to think that we are blocking websites when it’s not the case. There has been a a lot of confusion for our customers around what we block so we just want to make sure that you know exactly what has happened.

    So let us clarify what we mean by Parental Controls:

    This is a choice we give parents who want peace of mind that their children are accessing websites for under 12’s, providing a safe, educational and interesting internet experience. We work with Symantec Rulespace who provide services for web content categorisation, and the category we’ve selected is ‘Kids’ content which is for the under 12 age group. We’re the only operator to offer this additional/optional service in the UK.
    Parental Control is a service we offer to help parents to protect their children while they’re online. It enables children to access the web via their mobile to a number of sites which are suitable under this category for under 12’s.
    The content is child focussed – it is not attempting to define everything that a child can or can’t read. We’re offering a child friendly environment where parents and children alike can spend time (together or alone) safe in the knowledge that all content under this category is suitable for the child based on the Kids category.
    Our default setting means we allow all our customers to access the internet for all websites except any adult related content, Parental Control is just an additional service we’re offering to parents.

    For more information, feel free to check out our blog here: http://o2lin.kr/1c4tUp5

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think this has already been answered in the updates to the article.

      TL;DR version: Your approach is utterly counter-productive at best. Ignorance has never helped anybody solve a problem.

      Delete
  38. I was delighted to find this Brazilian article referencing this matter -- http://meiobit.com/275090/filtros-britanicos-anti-pornografia-agora-bloqueiam-sites-de-tecnologia/ -- they even managed to find the exact picture I had in mind but failed to find myself when I was writing the story.

    ReplyDelete
  39. There should be only one censorship, And that is self censorship. But with the deliberate destruction of our culture. Who is to discern.of what is good and what is evil. Of course as planned the state moves into the vacuum. And therefore the interests of those who have wealth and thus power are served. The amalgamation of corporate and government power = Fascism ! Thank you you useful idiots of the left!

    ReplyDelete
  40. This is all about Free Speech. After all the gov’t (and their corporate cronies) censor the media and ban books like “America Deceived II”.
    Last link of “America Deceived II” before it is completely censored:
    http://www.amazon.com/America-Deceived-II-Possession-interrogation/dp/1450257437

    ReplyDelete
  41. RedTube pixelates all content, becomes #1 provider in Japan and gets elected role model by #UK gov http://wp.me/p35rFe-2J #porn #censorship

    ReplyDelete
  42. Hi Peter,
    A better list of sites to test this against might be board-game companies! Check out boardgamegeek and try out a handful of board game companies - I'd bet that most of the companies listed there (most are small and independent companies, many are based outside the UK or US) are blocked. Of course, while the URL checker is down it isnt easy to test...
    ...which for a company that makes board games might affect their business if families with young children find that the site has been put into the 'unsuitable' category.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was a bit annoyed at first when they shut down the URL checker page, but then again, the .aspx extension more likely than not means it's a Microsoft-something box, and that probably couldn't take the traffic from all the slashdot and reddit visitors ;)

      I hope they're still monitoring the comments here. Who knows, it might even influence them to do something smart about this one day.

      Delete

Note: Comments are moderated. On-topic messages will be liberated from the holding queue at semi-random (hopefully short) intervals.

I invite comment on all aspects of the material I publish and I read all submitted comments. I occasionally respond in comments, but please do not assume that your comment will compel me to produce a public or immediate response.

If your suggestions are useful enough to make me write on a specific topic, I will do my best to give credit where credit is due.