Internet Service Providers in the UK are under pressure from the government to implement the use of filters that are designed to ensure that children and teenagers are not exposed to inappropriate content online. While this may seem as an effective way to prevent kids from accessing adult websites or sites promoting the use of alcohol and drug, in reality these filters don’t always work as they should. The issue is that they block content that should not be restricted and are censoring information that does not necessarily affect children or young people. According to the ORG (Open Rights Group), an organization that campaigns against online censorship and surveillance, almost 1 in 5 websites are being blocked by ISPs in the UK.
ORG has established the Blocked project with the purpose of finding out how web filters were being implemented and the impact that they could have. The study carried out by ORG determined that these filters are not only blocking websites with content that is potentially harmful for children, but also blogs and sites that have been caught in the censorship without any apparent reason. The organization has tested over 129000 sites and found that about 19% of them were blocked by the filters used by ISPs. The organization has established a website (Blocked.org.uk) in which it is possible to check if a site is affected by the blocking. Wikipedia also has a list of blocked sites in the UK.
Every ISP can apply their own filters, based on their own judgement of what they consider as inappropriate content. Some of the categories chosen make perfect sense and it is clear why filters have been placed, as refer to content that is not suitable for children. That is the case of Pornography, Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco, Gambling and Violence. However, the truth is that the filtering guidelines vary from provider to provider and some ISPs leave the task in the hands of outsources, making the blocking procedures even more inconsistent.
There is no regulation or clarity about the process used and how certain categories such as “Obscene and Tasteless” are determined. This means that many sites could end up being blocked by default, even if they do not contain any harmful material for children. That is why many forums and blogs have been blocked in error or even deliberately, just based in certain word or due to an subjective opinion of what is acceptable or not. Businesses have also been affected by this blocking , without being able to get any satisfactory explanation or compensation. To make matters worse, the process to get a website unblocked is often complicated and lengthy. Users are required to contact the Internet Service Provider by email in most cases but a solution may take longer than expected. Even though blocking websites with content that could impact children negatively is a worthy cause, the fact that it is not done correctly and that it is facilitating censorship in many cases, is something that should be considered by the UK government and questioned by its citizens.