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A number of British mobile networks are blocking the far-right British National Party’s website, it has been revealed.
Following a report by LSE Media Policy Project and Open Rights Group (ORG) on mobile internet censorship, a number of web-users alerted ORG that the BNP’s website is blocked on a variety of mobile networks if child protection filters are active, once again raising the question of the efficacy of online filtering systems.
Though these sites are blocked through child protection systems, ORG argues that often filters such as these are “on by default” and can block too much content through “mistaken categorisations”.
ORG also raise the question of whether internet service providers (ISP’s) should be blocking the website of a political party at all, citing political speech as “the core of the activities protected by freedom of expression rights”.
Upon further investigation of the alleged blocking, Index found it was blocked on Tmobile, Orange and Vodafone. We also noted with particular interest that the site was restricted to over 18s on 02, and subject to a charge of £1 to clarify you were of age to access the controversial political party’s website, and any other age restricted sites. Is this perhaps some kind of “porn tax” from the mobile networks? Why should a customer pay to verify their age?
In her response to the Mobile Censorship report on the LSE Media Policy Project’s blog, Index’s editor Jo Glanville said: “It has long been demonstrated that filtering systems are a blunt tool that censor content beyond the sites that are targeted”.
Glanville added that the criteria for blocking content on mobile phones are “alarmingly opaque” and explains that companies do not inform their customers that their phones “are blocked by default”. Glanville also describes “alarming evidence” detailed in the report, that phone companies failed to act when they were informed that a site had been wrongly blocked.
There is a particular concern that sites which are being blocked by child protection filters cover broader categories than adult sexual content, and that mobile networks are making decisions about what under 18s should be exposed to. ORG argues that the scope of content blocked on the mobile phones of young people should be determined by parents, in a discussion with their children.
“The current panic around protection of children has introduced the mistaken belief that filtering is a solution,” explains Glanville. “ORG and LSE have provided the timely evidence to show that it is, on the contrary damaging.”
It’s not just party political sites which are being blocked by these networks. Users also alerted ORG to a number of “anti-feminism” sites which were being blocked, including www.antimisandry.com, www.exposingfeminism.wordpress.com and www.angryharry.com, are all blocked on o2 and Vodafone, while www.manwomanmyth.com is blocked on Three and Orange. They also detail a number of reports that “lifestyle” sites have been blocked by mobile network providers, along with a number of technology-related news sites and some discussion forums.
Following their report, ORG and LSE called on mobile networks to offer an “opt in” system for filtering, rather than having to “opt out”, and for further clarity on the source of filtering technology. The report also recommends regular reviews of filtering systems and their efficacy.
Alice Purkiss is an editorial assistant at Index. She tweets at @alicemaypurkiss
Last Thursday evening, the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority in San Francisco — better known as BART — was worried about the consequences (and likely public relations mess) of a protest planned inside its subway system to denounce a fatal police shooting earlier this summer by BART police officers. As a preventive measure, BART deployed a tactic many commentators have since likened to Hosni Mubarak’s playbook: It shut down cell signal in four stations for several hours to prevent protesters from organising.
As it turns out, inviting comparisons to deposed Egyptian dictators — and at the historic epicenter of the US free-speech movement — posed a much bigger PR disaster than anything that would have come from a nonviolent police protest. More protests were then planned. Anonymous hacked BART’s website. The Federal Communications Commission is now looking into the incident. Several California politicians have expressed shock. And free speech advocates across the country are furious about a US precedent for exactly the type of social-media policy officials in the UK have been weighing since last week’s riots.
Making matters worse, BART officials have dug in to defend the decision rather than distance themselves from it, arguing that riders’ constitutional right to safety trumps protesters’ constitutional right to free speech. The agency has not promised it won’t deploy the same tactic again in the future.
“Inside the fare gates,” a BART spokesperson told a local TV channel, “is a non-public forum, and by law, by the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court, there is no right to free speech there.”
Eva Galperin with the Electronic Frontier Foundation was having none of this logic on EFF’s blog:
“Cell phone service has not always been available in BART stations. The advent of reliable service inside of stations is relatively recent. But once BART made the service available, cutting it off in order to prevent the organisation of a protest constitutes prior restrain on the free speech rights of every person in the station, whether they’re a protestor or a commuter. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Censorship is not okay in Tahrir Square or Trafalgar Square, and it’s still not okay in Powell Street Station.”
The ACLU on Monday sent a letter to both BART and the Federal Communications Commission saying:
“BART’s actions must be seen in the context of today’s events. All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to silence them. BART has never disrupted wireless service before, and chose to take this unprecendented measure for the first time last week in response to a protest of BART police. BART’s decision was in effect an effort by a government entity to silence its critics.”
Rex Huppke, a commentator with the Chicago Tribune, downplayed all the drama, underscoring that many people view electronic communication — and the right to freely text, email, or associate online — as some less legitimate version of free expression.
“We have more than enough ways to communicate in this day and age. Briefly losing access to a score update or a Facebook note about sushi or a message from work isn’t an assault on freedom.”
A year ago, BART might have gotten away with the move with less public outcry. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, any police action in the West that conjures up images of censorship in the Middle East will inevitably alarm Americans. Along with reaction to the riots in the UK, the BART incident has awoken many people to the reality that technology creates complex new means of censorship anywhere in the world.
Emily Badger is Index on Censorship’s US editor