Inside Default Web Blocking - Part 1

After sustained government pressure, 3 of the 4 major UK ISPs now offer web filtering products to their customers.   What filtering is going on? How effective is it? What's next?   These are questions with complex answers. The UK does not, as yet, have as invasive a system as the Great Firewall of China, but features nearly all of the same technologies, problems and circumvention techniques. In this two-part article, I will focus on the new ISP content filters and their varying implementations.   As a expert in internet and networking technologies as well as internet regulatory measures, I took it upon myself to analyse, in detail, the current state of UK web blocking by compiling information from a number of government, media and industry data sources in order to analyse issues with both the available filtering categories and the consistency of their implementation.   In part one I will look at:
  1. #Comparison" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to Comparison">Blocked Content Comparison
  2. #Alcohol%20and%20Tobacco" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to Alcohol and Tobacco">Alcohol and Tobbaco
  3. #File%20Sharing" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to File Sharing">File Sharing
  4. #Gambling" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to Gambling">Gambling
  5. #Games" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to Games">Games
  6. #Cyberbullying" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to Cyberbullying">Cyberbullying
Part two will cover:
  • Pro-Ana Content
  • Sex Education
  • Web-blocking Circumvention
  • Esoteric Material
  • Extremist and Terrorist Material
  • Conclusions
UK ISPs have traditionally been resistant to government regulatory pressures, knowing that they are increasingly asked to bear responsibility for their users' activity, be it acting on behalf of the copyright industry to monitor piracy or voluntarily blocking child abuse images.   However after extensive lobbying, these many categories of websites are now blocked across three major ISPs under a voluntary-but-not-voluntary arrangement:  

Comparison of categories blocked by UK ISPs:

Category Talktalk Homesafe BT Family Protection Sky Broadband Shield
Dating Dating Dating Dating
Drugs Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco Drugs Drugs and Criminal Skills
#Alcohol%20and%20Tobacco" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to Alcohol and Tobacco">Alcohol and Tobacco Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco Alcohol & Tobacco  
#File%20Sharing" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to File Sharing">File sharing File Sharing Sites File Sharing Anonymizers, Filesharing and Hacking
#Gambling" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to Gambling">Gambling Gambling Gambling not blocked
#Games" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to Games">Games Games
Homework Time
Games
Homework Time
Online Gaming
Pornography Pornography Pornography Pornography and Adult
Nudity   Nudity  
Social networking and Web forums Social Networking
Homework Time
Social Networking
Homework Time
Social Networking
Suicide and Self-harm Suicide and Self Harm Hate and Self-harm Suicide and Self Harm
Weapons and violence Weapons and Violence Weapons and Violence Weapons, Violence, Gore and Hate
Obscenity   Obscene and Tasteless  
Criminal Skills   Obscene and Tasteless Drugs and Criminal Skills
Hate   Hate and Self-harm Weapons, Violence, Gore and Hate
Media Streaming   Media Streaming  
Fashion and Beauty   Fashion and Beauty  
Gore   Obscene and Tasteless Weapons, Violence, Gore and Hate
#Cyberbullying" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Jump to Cyberbullying">Cyberbullying     Cyber Bullying
Hacking   Obscene and Tasteless Anonymizers, Filesharing and Hacking
(Optional) School Cheating Sites   Homework Time  
(Optional) Sex education
Gay and Lesbian Lifestyle
  Sex Education  
(Optional) Search Engines   Search Engines and Portals  
(Optional) Phishing, Malware and Spyware Virus Alerts   Phishing, Malware and Spyware
Pro-ana content relating to Anorexia and Eating disorders  ?  ?  ?
Web-blocking circumvention tools  ? When any filtering enabled Anonymizers, Filesharing and Hacking
Esoteric Material  ?  ?  ?

Blocked by specific programmes:

Category Organisation Technology
Child Pornography Internet Watch Foundation Cleanfeed
Criminally obscene adult content Internet Watch Foundation Cleanfeed
Copyright infringing sites subject to court orders Various rights holder organisations ISP Specific
Extremism and Terrorism Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit
(Currently Public Estate Blocking Only)
URL Blocking List
 

Alcohol and Tobacco

I was surprised at the absence of industry lobbyists publicly opposing blocking alcohol-related websites - but having experience with drinks industry websites, I know their online marketing efforts are highly focused on social media platforms. An interesting thing about social media platforms (e.g. https://www.facebook.com/) is that they cannot be selectively blocked by filtering technologies when accessed over SSL (HTTPS). Unfortunately, parents may erroneously believe they are effectively protecting their children from such advertising. Their own websites may be blocked, but in the mean-time, drinks brands can be marketed with impunity to anyone with a Facebook account unless you also blanket ban all social media sites.

File Sharing

The campaign against file sharing on the internet pre-dates the web filters and is a service about which Pirate Party UK has actively campaigned; including running our own proxy service, initially in solidarity with our sister parties and latterly to attempt to contest the legality of the media industry dictated blocking regime. Unfortunately, the financial cost to the individuals, even when backed by the party and donations, was too great to effectively complete this challenge and proxy sites for accessing 'blocked' sites are still to be contested in court.   In the mean-time, technology websites like http://bittorrent.com/ and http://www.utorrent.com/ are blocked, as well as an extended (but not comprehensive) list of bittorrent and proxy sites, however traffic for downloading via peer-to-peer networks is not blocked, nor are other services such as IRC chat.   At the time of writing, the popular software development site http://sourceforge.net/  has even been blocked by (BT's) 'File Sharing' category, along with similar file hosting services such as CNet's download.com - even the popular file-sharing news site Torrent Freak was blocked by Sky for several days.   The dangers of these filters, once again, is both they can be a dangerous blunt instrument to apply to huge swaths of internet real estate, and that they offer the illusion of effective control to parents who do not understand the complex legal and technical landscape of this area.

Gambling

The gambling industries have gone from strength to strength since the rise of the internet. Formerly the pastime of the anorak-wearing in the seedy local highstreet, bringing gambling to people's homes has captured the time, imagination and wallet of the UK consumer like never before. The financial dangers and psychologically addictive effect of gambling has led to government regulation and caution. But not on Sky Broadband!   Unsurprising, since Sky Betting and Gaming division spans multiple sites and services - which cannot be blocked on Sky Broadband. Who knew Sky were so anti-censorship?

Games

Of course, once again, websites in the format http://latestonlinegame.com will be blocked and https://www.facebook.com/lastestonlinegame/ will not be blocked.   It's unclear the scope of the blocking (of course); whilst some mobile ISPs have been known to block services like Steam and Minecraft, most do not. It's unclear whether this would affect use of e.g. Netflix and other services integrated into consoles.   BT's filters do, however, claim to block access to app stores (itunes/google play/kindle store etc) -  removing users' ability to patch and update their applications, leaving them vulnerable to malware and other online threats. Thanks, BT!

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is a major concern of today's parents, much like bullying has always been - but with children now able to interact directly with both classmates and strangers through their computers and mobiles from their bedrooms, it's very important that children and their parents are able to effectively deal with harassment through programmes of education.  Platform providers such as Facebook, Twitter and even Ask.fm have implemented tools to report abuse, despite reports to the contrary.   Only Sky Broadband claims to be able to block cyberbullying; with the remaining ISPs presumably realising that bullying is not a concept which can be blocked at the network level.   Unfortunately for Sky customers, they may get the impression this is possible to do via these filters.  

In part two, I will look at the blocking of Pro-Ana Content, Sex Education, Web-blocking Circumvention, Esoteric Material, Extremist and Terrorist Material, as well as conclusions which can be drawn from my research.