A man using the British Library's wi-fi network was denied access to an online version of Shakespeare's Hamlet because the text contained violent content .
Author Mark Forsyth was writing his book in the library, and needed to check a line from the famous play. He revealed on his blog that the filter had logged his attempt to access the page.
The British Library said the fault was caused by a newly installed wi-fi service from a third-party provider.
A spokesperson for the British Library said Hamlet had since been made accessible.
Internet filters have recently come under increased scrutiny, after the government announced that pornography will be automatically blocked by UK internet providers, unless customers choose otherwise. In general the most minute examples of a few
words alluding to adult content can be enough to trigger a block. The software then errs on the side of caution and unfairly blocks many websites.
And of course these companies show little concern about legitimate businesses that suffer as a result.
Prof Ross Anderson, a security expert at Cambridge University, told the BBC that internet filters were pointless and that it was completely inappropriate to have one in the British Library. He added:
Everything that is legal should be available over the library's wi-fi network. The only things they should block are the few dozen books against which there are court judgements in the UK. One of the functions of deposit libraries is to keep
everything, including smut.
Meanwhile one filter maker has a bit of a Gerald Ratner moment
Some customers of newly filtered ISPs are finding that porn is still getting through , but bona fide sites are being blocked . That's because filter algorithms struggle to distinguish between porn and legitimate sites, like lingerie retailers.
None of these systems are perfect, says George Anderson from online filtering security firm Webroot:
If you're an underwear site that's pretty close [to a porn site] and you get blocked because of this ban, that's going to cause issues.
All of the country's mobile operators implement website blocking systems in the name of child protection. They are turned on by
default, and only get removed by a minority of people, and are largely unregulated.
The most important thing to know about these mobile website blockers, 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. 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 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,
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.
Adult content blocking systems used by major ISPs are blocking websites offering sex education and advice on sexual health and porn addiction, the BBC has learned.
The four major internet companies have started to roll out so-called porn filters to their users. BT launched its filter this week , Virgin has a pilot programme ahead of a full launch early in 2014, and Sky's was turned on a month ago. TalkTalk's
blocking system started in May 2011.
Newsnight also discovered all the major ISPs that have launched full default filters are also failing to block hardcore porn-hosting sites.
Among the sites TalkTalk blocked as pornographic was BishUK.com , an award-winning British sex education site, which receives more than a million visits each year. TalkTalk also lists Edinburgh Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre website
as pornographic. The company also blocked a programme ran by sex education experts, taught to 81,000 American children that has been in development for more than 20 years.
The TalkTalk system failed to block 7% of the 68 pornographic websites tested by Newsnight.
Sky's filter fared much better, blocking 99% of sites, but it did block six porn-addiction sites.
BT blocked sites including Sexual Health Scotland , Doncaster Domestic Abuse Helpline , and Reducing The Risk , a site which tackles domestic abuse.
Justin Hancock runs BishUK and was not aware his site was being blocked by some systems until he was alerted by Newsnight. He said:
It's really frustrating because I'm trying to provide a sex education site for young people and it's hard enough directing young people to good quality information on the internet.
They might fix my site in the short-term but what about all the other sites that are out there for young people, not just sex education sites... who are TalkTalk to say what is allowed and isn't?
Offsite Article: Why WordPress bloggers were blocked by TalkTalk, and what it tells us about Internet filtering
At the end of November a number of WordPress blog admins complained on WordPress forums that they were having problems accessing their accounts. It appeared that TalkTalk subscribers who had Wordpress blogs could not access their administration
pages over https, and so couldn't write and publish new blog posts.
The second time we met was in the Sky News studio. I know you remember me, because you described me as a "responsible pornographer". I felt dirty. I tried to put two questions to you, but you talked over them, as
politicians are trained to do. So here are those questions again:
I'm a parent: are you suggesting that my partner and I should censor our home Internet connection because we happen to have a child in the house? Should parents set their filters on or off?
How can you prevent a repeat of the huge overblocking problem that already appears on mobile networks?
Since you wouldn't answer these, I will: 1) There is no sense in a filter that affects a whole household rather than individuals; 2) You can't prevent overblocking. You can promise to, just as you can promise to stop the
tide. But you can't. It's impossible.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron wants all Internet providers to block adult content by default, to protect the
children. This filtering requirement is controversial for a number of reasons, not least due to ISPs' filters targeting a wide range of other content too. Sky's newly launched Broadband Shield, for example, blocks numerous legitimate file-sharing
related sites including uTorrent and BitTorrent.com, download portals for Linux distributions, and even TorrentFreak.
While most of the discussion has focused on porn, Sky's filter -- and those operated by other ISPs -- actually block a much wider range of content. Sky's The 13-years-old-and-over setting is ticked by default, which also includes
dating, anonymizers, file-sharing and hacking.
In other words, those customers who don't opt out from the 'porn filter will also have file-sharing sites and services blocked. A quick round on the internet reveals that this category is rather inclusive, and not limited to pirate sites.
Among the blocked sites are BitTorrent.com, who work with Madonna and other artists on a regular basis to release free-to-download content. The same is true for other BitTorrent clients including uTorrent, Transmission and Vuze. Tribler , which is
developed at Delft University of Technology with EU taxpayer money, is filtered as well.
Websites which offer perfectly legitimate content via P2P downloads are also filtered by Sky's default settings. This includes VODO , the distribution platform for indie filmmakers, the download page of the Linux-based Fedora, as well as the
download portal Linuxtracker .
In addition, several websites that merely write news about file-sharing issues are blocked by the filter too, including TorrentFreak .
TorrentFreak spoke with the Open Rights Group (ORG), who have been very critical of the filtering schemes in the UK. According to Executive Director Jim Killock, Sky is not the only problem here, as other UK ISPs employ overbroad blocking schemes,
including the older mobile network filters. To find out what is being blocked exactly, ORG has been building its own checking tools , as well as a website where false positives can be reported.
Whether anything can be done against the overblocking and false positives that are reported remains to be seen. For now all legitimate file-sharing services and sites remain blocked, including the article you are reading right now.
Here at TF we've long been opponents of website blocking. It's a blunt instrument that is prone to causing collateral damage and known for failing to achieve its stated aims. We recently discovered that thanks to Sky's Broadband Shield filtering
system, TorrentFreak is now blocked on one of the UK's largest ISPs by users who think they are protecting their kids.
Our crimes are the topics we cover. As readers know we write about file-sharing, copyright and closely linked issues including privacy and web censorship. We write about the positives and the negatives of those topics and we solicit comments from
not only the swarthiest of pirates, but also the most hated anti-piracy people on the planet.
If the MPAA, RIAA, FACT, BPI, RightsAlliance, BREIN and every DMCA takedown company on earth want to have their say they can do that, alongside the folks at The Pirate Bay. We won't deny anyone their voice, whether it's someone being raided by the
police or the people who instigated the raid. Getting the news out is paramount.
We are not scared to let anyone have their say and we embrace free speech. But apparently the people at Sky and their technology masters at Symantec believe that we should be denied our right to communicate on the basis that we REPORT NEWS about
That's just utter nonsense.
Symantec write about viruses and malware ALL THE TIME, so are they placed in the malware and virus category? Of course not. Thanks to their very own self-categorization process they wear the Technology and Telecommunication label. Is their
website blocked by any of their own filters? I won't even bother answering that.
Examining other sites helpfully categorized by Symantec and blindly accepted by Sky reveals no more clarity either. UK ISP Virgin Media runs its own Usenet access, customers can find it at news.virginmedia.com. From there it's possible to download
every possible copyrighted movie and TV show around today, yet that service is listed by Symantec as a Technology and Telecommunication / Portal site. Download.com, possibly the world's largest distributer of file-sharing software, is also
On the other hand, TorrentFreak -- which neither offers or links to copyrighted files and hosts no file-sharing software whatsoever -- is blocked for any Sky household filtered for under 18s? Really? Our news site is suitable for all ages yet when
Sky's teenager filter is turned on we are put on the same level as porn, suicide, self harm, violence and gore.
Sky has inevitably removed a block on TorrentFreak, after its crap new network-level filter negligently classified the news outlet as a file-sharing site. No doubt there are thousands more websites being unfairly blocked that don't quite have the
influence of TorrentFreak.
Though intended to block unsuitable content for children such as porn, gambling or violent sites, the filter also appears to be blocking legitimate sites. Sky doesn't categorise sites itself, instead working with Symantec.
At the behest of David Cameron and the Daily Mail, everyone who signs up for an Internet account is asked Would you like to keep 'adult content' blocked on this connection?
It's a misleading question. A more accurate version is Would you like an unnamed third party company to use a secret, arbitrary, ever-changing blacklist to spy on all your clicks and decide which ones are and are not allowed to get through?
Like China's Great Firewall, the UK firewall is a patchwork of rules and filters that are opaque to users and regulators. Every ISP uses its own censorship supplier to spy on its customers and decide what they're allowed to see, and they change what is
and is not allowed from moment to moment, with no transparency into how, when or why those decisions are being made.
Case in point: Virgin Media is blocking access to the website of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition
. The site hosts Parliament's own documents on extraordinary rendition (this being the favoured government euphemism for sending people to other countries to be tortured ).
There's no way to know why Virgin blocked this. It's probably because much of the vocabulary used, seems to a dumb algorithm, to sound a bit like a website glorifying terrorism. Virgin in fact makes the unlikely sounding claim that the site is serving
Report on Internet Safety Measures [pdf]
has just been published and reveals that about 21% of parents now use website blocking systems made available by ISPs. Presumably the government would like to see this increased. And as if by magic, Sky has announced that they will be a bit more
aggressive about forcing existing subscribers to make a choice about using the ISP's censorship options.
Sky Broadband have announced they will force web-filters on all customers , starting this week, unless the account-holder opts out.
When trying to visit a website deemed unsuitable for children under the age of 13 during the day, customers will see a page reminding them to make a choice about filtering. At this point, they can accept the current setting, change their
protection levels or simply turn Sky Broadband Shield off.
It's better for people to make their own choice, but until they do, we believe this process to be the safest one. Meanwhile we can ensure that they're protected from phishing, malware and sites unsuitable for young children.
The Open Rights Group comments:
This approach will increase harm for websites and web surfers, and there is still little evidence of the benefit to children, so why are they doing it?
All ISPs promised David Cameron they would make all customers choose whether to use filters or not. Sky is not offering a choice however - they are imposing filtering unless customers opt out - an approach that the government rejected after
running their own consultation. In addition, most households do not contain children so, Sky's default-on approach seems over-reaching.
Could Sky Broadband be seeking to increase adoption of web filters through "nudge" tactics in order to avoid Government criticism for a lack of uptake? Public interest in activating filters has been low since the Government started
pressuring ISPs to introduce them in summer 2013. Ofcom said in July 2014 that just 8% of Sky Broadband subscribers had switched them on. The same report showed a 34% adoption-rate for competitor TalkTalk, who promote filters aggressively, and
have made them the default option for new subscribers for a long time. Nudge tactics rely on the principle that most people don't bother changing defaults.
If Sky's agenda were neutral, they would block all web-access for an account until the account-holder had stated their preference about filters: on or off. Instead they intend to block only those sites "deemed unsuitable for under 13s."
If people are inconvenienced by Sky Broadband filters only as much as they are on their mobiles, many won't bother to change the defaults, as it may feel like a lot of hassle if your surfing habits fall foul of overblocking infrequently.
Meanwhile others might suffer disproportionately more overblocking depending on the information they seek. We suspect resources on sexual health and sexual orientation for instance are blocked in error more often than other types of site. If you
are not the account holder, and you can't get to a site you need, your only recourse would be to discuss it with the person controlling the account. That could be a parent, partner, landlord, room-mate, fellow student, etc.
Sky Broadband may claim increased popularity for filters when in reality the figures would be inflated artificially. People who don't want or need them might be too apathetic, or too reluctant to be on a list of "people who requested the bad
sites", to switch them off.
Sky Broadband are asking their customers to choose but they are not giving them the information they need to make an informed choice. Their explanations about filters mention none of their disadvantages or limitations. Far from being perfect, web
filters block sites nobody could object to, while failing to block others that are unquestionably adult in nature. If Sky Broadband are confused about this they could consult the
Department of Dirty
Filters are not a parenting panacea and do not substitute for responsible supervision of children online. At ORG we believe parents need help understanding the web, advice on how to talk to their children about online risks, and support to be
able to supervise their children effectively. Some may choose filtering as part of their solution - but the rest of us shouldn't be forced to have it just in case.
We also need more transparency about how filters work, what they block, and means of redress for website owners when things go wrong. That's why we built our checking tool at blocked.org.uk
- though we would prefer ISPs to take responsibility for this themselves.
Internet provider TalkTalk is to become the latest to censor pornographic websites by default.
Any customer who has so far ignored online prompts from the company will find adult material automatically blocked under a scheme being rolled out next month.
The move follows Sky's decision to default to a censored internet unless households specifically ask for it to be turned off. Pressure was last night building on BT and Virgin Media to introduce a similar approach to censorship.
Furthermore all TalkTalk customers will be hassled every 12 months to re-affirm their decision to allow or block websites.