Mobile Broadband Group response to ORG / LSE mobile censorship report


This is the first in a series of responses to the new report 'Mobile Internet censorship: what's happening and what to do about it', published today by Open Rights Group and LSE Media Policy Project.



How to offer appropriate protection to children on the Internet is a challenge that policy makers have been wrestling with for many years. It is necessary to navigate a path that does not unnecessarily restrict personal freedoms, is technically simple for customers to implement (or remove), can be executed via numerous distribution channels, across a range of devices, and can be applied with reasonable accuracy and consistency across hundreds of millions of web sites.

The mobile operators in the UK have been working in this field since 2002, when the first 3G mobile devices started to become available. In those times only a very small proportion of children accessed the Internet through their mobile device. In anticipation of significant growth in use by children, the UK’s mobile operators, under the auspices of the Mobile Broadband Group, published a code of practice in 2004, with a view to offering a safe browsing experience for children.

The Code has a number of elements. For the purposes of today’s discussion the most relevant relates to content available on the Internet, where operators have no control over what is available. A filter to the mobile operator’s Internet access service is therefore provided so that the content thus accessible can be restricted for children. The filter is set at a level that is intended to filter out content approximately equivalent to commercial content (Commercial content – means content provided by commercial content providers (encompassing own brand and third party providers) to their mobile customers) with a classification of 18, as determined by the Independent Mobile Classification Body, a body appointed by the operators under one of the commitments in the Code.

The Mobile Broadband Group Code has a strong claim to be one of the most successful in its field. The Code was the first of its kind and was used as the template for similar codes throughout the European Union. That said, child protection remains a very challenging policy area. It is not possible to achieve total perfection in a very dynamic environment – customers do not always have strong technical knowledge, children can be adept at finding ways round the protection systems and there are now supposed to be 644,275,754 active websites to classify.

There are no official benchmarks for classification accuracy. The BSI some years ago attempted to create a Publicly Available Standard for filtering systems, which required 99.99% filtering accuracy. If a ‘Six Sigma’ manufacturing standard were to be used a 99.99966% degree of accuracy would be required (in the context of 644m websites, 2,190 misclassified websites). Even allowing for the ORG missing a few, 60 misclassified websites does not amount to anything that could reasonably be described as ‘censorship’, particularly when mobile operators are happy to remove the filters when customers show they are over 18 and will re-classify websites when misclassifications are pointed out to them. This is how the small handful of web sites that get referred to mobile operators each year are already dealt with.

We believe that the vast majority of customers recognise the need for solutions in this area for the greater good – just as people are happy to show ID in off licences if they look under 25 (I would just be happy to be asked!).

In conclusion, I would like to emphasise the areas of agreement between the ORG and the MBG. The ORG agrees that giving safer access to children is a worthwhile goal. The MBG as well as the ORG would also like to see greater availability of filtering systems for mobile devices themselves – but the market is just not there yet. The MBG has also been working on a more comprehensive filtering framework for the mobile Internet and will announce developments on that front later in 2012.

The MBG will ensure that any misclassifications reported are corrected and will consider the ORG’s report carefully. We welcome stakeholder input from all points of view (and the ORG will be aware that many hold strong opposing views to theirs) and we will continue to develop appropriate child safety policy for an ever changing environment.


Hamish MacLeod is Chair of the Mobile Broadband Group. He is writing in response to the new report 'Mobile Internet censorship: what's happening and what to do about it', published today by Open Rights Group and LSE Media Policy Project.


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Comments (4)

  1. Leila:
    May 14, 2012 at 02:30 PM

    "Even allowing for the ORG missing a few, 60 misclassified websites does not amount to anything that could reasonably be described as ‘censorship’, particularly when mobile operators are happy to remove the filters when customers show they are over 18 and will re-classify websites when misclassifications are pointed out to them."

    Hamish misses the key point from the report, which is that it was not possible to report wrongly blocked websites to mobile operators so that they get unblocked. The only option offered in response to complaints about wrongly blocked websites was that users could opt out of the adult content filter. How does that help a parent who finds that a website has been incorrectly blocked, but does not want to remove the "adult content" filter completely from their child's mobile phone? Hamish also misses the point made by the report that mobile users are not properly informed of the default filter, and that mobile customer service reps are unable to explain on what basis content is blocked - ie on the basis of the Mobile Broadband Group code and some extremely vague criteria for what is “over 18” content.

    Is it not time to offer parents filters for different age groups? ie filters for under 12, 12 to 16, and 16 to 18. This could be done as part of the long-overdue review of the code (2004, cough). We now know that internet enabled mobile phones are widely used by under 12 year olds, as well as older teens.

  2. Tzctopen:
    May 14, 2012 at 10:44 PM

    How are these filters going to block content going over encrypted connections? (proxy servers, ssh tunnels, Freenet.... ).

    I am sure many teenagers have the technical ability to set all these up, and in many cases ready made options exist or will exist.

    And how are these filters going to block content that could be held in the cloud, where one can create fully functional servers at the drop of a hat, or content that could be held in virus compromised machines.

    The MBG (and the government's) aims may appear laudable, but they fail at the first hurdle that is inspected seriously, the proposed blocks simply provide a fig leaf protection for the technically naive while seriously hindering the communication between them and legitimate places in the net.

    Technical means are not substitute for proper parental supervision, I get the impression that what is really happening is that the British public is too embarrassed to inform themselves about what is going on in the net, don't want to talk about it with shocked children and are delegating their natural responsibility to the government.

    ISPs should be explaining to the politicians why blocking is futile, not offering their own "solutions" (can the MBG assures us that they will not make commercial use of the information obtained from the preferences about blocking from their suffering costumers?).

  3. Chris Barnett:
    May 15, 2012 at 10:14 PM

    The political party I work for is well known.

    We have 2 MEPs elected, and 3 Councillors. We have over 10,000 members and we are Britain's most visited political website.

    Our website falls foul of adult content blocking and the mobile phone companies have given me and my organisation the round-around for over 1 year with no end in sight to our website adult content block being lifted.

    For over 1 year I've been trying to get the adult content bar lifted for my organisation, a POLITICAL PARTY - and for over 1 year, NONE of the 3 major networks that block us have been of help.

    First I was told by both t-mobile and O2 that they don't decide what websites are blocked and that the IMCB decides. When the IMCB told me that they have never classified our website, both O2 and t-mobile amended their webpages, withdrawing their claim that it's down to the IMCB.

    There is NO advertised procedure to follow from any of the mobile companies once your website has been declared as adult content.

    I find it scary. We are a political party and we have not been able to get the phone companies to co-operate.

    We understand that children need protecting, but we can't even find out what content on our website is "offending" the mobile phone companies.

    It's disgusting and unacceptable that a political party is blocked.

    It is undemocratic. The internet is out only way of disputing what is published in the mainstream media.

    If we can't get any help out of the mobile phone companies, what chance does one individual blogger have?

    1. It hampers our fundraising
    2. It hampers activism as we need activists to key in data from mobile phones.
    3. It is censorship - while the mainstream media lies, we have no way to communicate back to a demographic with what we really stand for.

    Chris Barnett
    I.T. Coordinator
    British National Party (Not available on your phone unless you pay to prove you're over 18)

  4. Jenny Scott-Thompson:
    May 16, 2012 at 06:48 PM

    You can't get the adult filters removed if you're on some company contracts, even if you are over 18. And when I rang customer services, they couldn't tell me how to get a website unblocked. (I was asking about Flickr, so I could see my family's holiday photos.) So the code has gaps and the bits it guarantees aren't even being implemented.

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Hamish MacLeod on May 14, 2012

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