The endless debate over the UK Government’s bloated and inconsistent Online Safety Bill (OSB) took another twist today after the Open Rights Group (ORG) pointed out that two of the biggest ISPs in broadband, Virgin Media (VMO2) and TalkTalk, were blocking access to MP Penny Mordaunt’s website under the heading “unsuitable for children“.
Currently, all major ISPs in the market are required, under a semi-voluntary agreement with the government, to adopt network-level filtering systems (aka – Active Choice More), which are usually enabled by default (you can optionally disable it). The intention is to prevent children from seeing unsavory online content, while customers can also have the option to filter by age, time and on different categories of content.
However, it’s no secret that such filters can be inaccurate and can block harmless websites (overblocking), something we’ve seen happen many times before. Often, the owner of the associated websites won’t even know this is happening unless one of their end users reports it, or is monitoring network traffic very closely (even then, it may not be obvious). Unblocking can also take a bit of time.
The BSF is likely to cause a lot more blockages, so it is with great irony that one of the Bill’s biggest supporters and a favorite in the race to become the next Prime Minister, Penny Mordaunt, MPhad its website (http://pm4pm.com) blocked by TalkTalk and Virgin Media’s network level filtering (Parental control) systems.
The Online Safety Bill will create industry-wide systems to remove content deemed dangerous.
Schemes introduced by broadband providers after pressure from the government of David Cameron block Penny Mordaunt’s website as unsafe for children on TalkTalk and Virgin Media today, illustrating the kinds of problems the Bill on the online security will create.
Blocks can be checked using Open Rights Groups’ Blocked.org.uk tool to monitor online censorship.
At this time, it is unclear precisely why the ISPs blocked the website, although Virgin Media’s related block page states: “We believe this site may contain material that is not suitable for children, so it has been blocked by your account’s Web Safe settings.” – [Insert various puns here about UK politicians being deemed unsafe for children].
Blocking systems and lists are often operated by third-party commercial companies, although a few years ago we were told that critical sites could be whitelisted to avoid precisely this sort of thing, which is not clearly didn’t work in this case.
We should point out that ORG’s block monitor seems to report that the encrypted version (HTTPS://) of Mordaunt’s website is working, although it is incorrectly listed as having a “SSL error“. We ran a few checks and found no issues with the site’s Cloudflare SSL certificate. But ISP customers are reporting that the HTTPS:// version of the site is also blocked when filters are enabled, it’s just that ORG’s monitoring system has trouble with encrypted domains (they recognize it and say that ‘it’s best to check with HTTP:// because it’s Suite’exact“).
As we always say, it is impossible for ISPs to completely block websites that exist on remote internet servers. Such a blockage is therefore only a placebo, the equivalent of leaving a door wide open with the mention “Do not enter” stuck outside. This is not the ISPs fault and reflects how the internet works. Anyone wishing to access this content will be able to easily circumvent the blocks using VPNs, proxy servers, etc., depending on the blocking method used.
Naturally, we asked both TalkTalk and Virgin Media to explain why they are blocking the website of a democratically elected Minister of Parliament. We’ll update when they respond, not that Virgin takes any of this seriously (here).