UK ISP Filters Blocking Legal, Non-Infringing Activists Websites

One of our main criticisms about online censorship is that, most of the time, there’s little to no accountability and that such regimes open the door for abuse. A new report coming from Open Rights Group highlights exactly why we are against it just weeks after UK mobile ISPs began blocking Swedish BitTorrent Website ThePirateBay.

It’s almost tragic just how perfectly our concerns about internet censorship are being practiced – and even more so thanks to the timing of it all. Late last month, the UK High Court ordered ISPs to begin blocking Swedish BitTorrent website ThePirateBay. At the time, this was part of our response:

The article doesn’t necessarily elaborate on the slippery slope mentioned here, but we too can see a very dangerous slippery slope as a result of this ruling. Even if one did support the blocking of ThePirateBay, the question then becomes where do we draw the line? Does this allow major corporations merely to block the most, what they call, “notorious” websites? What about smaller sites or private sites? Are blogs and discussion forums also possibly subject to blocking? What sites that allow open discussions period? Will it eventually get to the point where even discussing copyright becomes grounds for possible blocking from the ISPs? What about websites that just allow artists to post their own music? If it’s possible to upload a remix that might not have gotten copyright clearance, do those websites face blocking as well? What about proxies and content that can be used to circumvent such blocking? Sure, this recent blocking is only directed at one specific website, but it’s very easy to see the kind of floodgate being opened where mass censorship of the internet becomes the norm.

While this latest report is more directed at ISP filtering software designed to block pornographic material, it is still a form of censorship nevertheless that is classified as over-blocking. You can read the report yourself here. (PDF)

The report found 60 websites unfairly blocked. Among those are the following top ten websites that clearly show an example of over-blocking. From the report:

Following these reports, we wanted to understand the scale of the over-blocking problem. To help do this, we created a reporting tool that allows people to submit reports of blocks they consider to be inappropriate.

Working with a small group of volunteers, we collected over 60 reports of incorrectly blocked sites between 1st January and 31st March 2012.11 The reports included bars and personal and political blogs through to political advocacy sites. These are ten examples of reports of inappropriate blocks we received via Blocked.org.uk:

1. ‘Tor’ (www.torproject.org). We established that the primary website of this privacy tool (meaning the HTTP version of the Tor Project website, rather than connections to the Tor network) was blocked on at least Vodafone, O2 and Three in January.

2. La Quadrature du Net (www.laquadrature.net/en). The website of this French ‘digital rights’ advocacy group was reported blocked on Orange’s ‘Safeguard’ system on 2nd February. La Quadrature du Net has become one of the focal points for European civil society’s political engagement with an important international treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. The block was removed shortly after we publicised the blocking.

3. Shelfappeal.com was reported blocked on 15th February 2012 on Orange. This is a blog that features items that can be placed on a shelf.

4. Septicisle.info was reported on 7th February, and was blocked on Vodafone, Orange, and T-Mobile. This is a personal blog featuring political opinion pieces. It does not contain any adult content.

5. The Vault Bar (www.thevaultbar.co.uk) in London. We established that the home page of this bar was blocked on Vodafone, Orange, and T-Mobile on 6th February.

6. St Margarets Community Website (www.stmgrts.org.uk), is a community information site ‘created by a group of local residents of St Margarets, Middlesex.’ Their ‘mission is simple – help foster a stronger community identity.’ We established it was blocked on Orange and T-Mobile on 8th March.

7. eHow.com is an advice and educational site. It provides tutorials on a wide range of everyday issues, from ‘navigating after-school care’ to ‘small space garden tips’. We established it was blocked on Orange on 9th March.

8. Biased-BBC (www.biased-bbc.blogspot.co.uk) is a site that challenges the BBC’s impartiality. We established it was blocked on O2 and T-Mobile on 5th March. It is classified as a ‘hate site’ by O2’s URL checker

9. Yomaraugusto.com is the home page of a graphic designer, offering a portfolio of his art and design work. This was found to be blocked on Three and Orange on 6th February.

10. Exquisitetweets.com allows users to create one-page threads to save or share from conversations on Twitter. This site was blocked on Vodafone, Orange, and T-Mobile on 15th February.

Just reading what was blocked is, in my opinion, enraging in and of itself. I mean, Squaring the Net is, by itself, a deeply concerning example of of over-blocking. But really, how surprising is this exactly? This isn’t the first time censorship systems were used to censor critics. Back in February, what was apparently a case of inadvertent censorship, an anti-piracy outfit wound up censoring URLs from TorrentFreak and TechDirt on Google. The outfit quickly apologized and had the URLs re-instated.

Another more glaring set of examples was from Australia at the height of the internet censorship debate in the country. In 2009, Australia blocked Wikileaks. Another famous example of over-blocking in Australia was when the web filter had websites like dental clinics and a kennel operator included on web filtering blacklists.

I, for one, was concerned about internet censorship filtering out legal websites from the beginning. Every time we’ve watched censorship take place on the internet, we’ve seen innocent websites get put on these blacklists. When we start talking about any sort of irreparable harm, real or imagined, done by websites that supposedly infringes on copyright, and we get to the point of making courts ordering ISPs to start censoring the internet, why don’t we also talk about any irreparable harm done by actual censorship? If a web start-up get’s blocked because of something wrong in the system whether it be human or technological, that company is going to be harmed. We’re not even getting to the part of how much time, effort and money would be necessary to lift an improper ban in the first place. In any event, this sort of thing is a clear cut case of innocent people getting screwed.

This is also why I think it’s outrageous that when we start to talk about censoring websites in other countries, there is a lack of discussion of what happens when a website is wrongly blocked in the first place (or what sort of procedure is involved that causes as little harm to the victim as possible). All we hear instead is how we should be trying to go out and get the bad guys. One memorable line for me when trying to ask for safeguards was the asinine response of “You’re either with us or you’re with the child pornographers.” (note: this came from Canada while discussing surveillance legislation). Another comment while discussing online filtering in Australia was that an unfiltered internet has no place in a democracy.

This is a big problem. We point out the potential problems. The problems are ignored and we’re brushed off as extremists or whatever the name happens to stick for proponents. Then, the very problems we are concerned about ends up happening for real and the whole thing becomes one big mess.

When looking at the international stage, it leaves one to wonder – are such problems being ignored because of ignorance or is it because the idea was to silence critics in the first place and this was a clever back-door way to accomplish this?

(Hat tip)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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