Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 20 January 2013

My experiences with smartphone content blocking

I've read a couple of articles in recent days about how UK mobile phone operators are blocking content such as political satire and LGBT news sites by default.

I think the idea is that "mature" content is set to be opt in in order to prevent younger eyes from seeing "adult" things. There is certainly a strong debate to be had about whether you need to be 18 before you can read political satire and information about LGBT issues and I know which side I would come down on.

I just wanted however to briefly share my experiences in this area as they may help to shed some light on the approach of the mobile phone ISPs.

Over the last 18 months I spent several months in hospital because of a family situation and I relied heavily on my iPhone to keep in touch with what was happening in the world during breaks between being in the ward. As I am a political animal I of course wanted to keep abreast of what was happening on the political blogs. However I discovered in October 2011 that my Vodafone account was blocking access to Political Betting. This is one of my favourite sites which has incisive analysis on political trends and also often fascinating discussions in the comment threads from in the main highly informed people who often have a financial interest in their predictions. But I guess the fact that the site is linked with betting means that Vodafone considers it to be "mature content" (even though usually the posts are just political analysis and the betting side of it is often implicit).

Anyway I called them up and asked for the block to be taken off. It took about 48 hours but they did so and I thought everything was from then on going to be OK. But a few months later, when we were in hospital again I suddenly found that Political Betting was blocked again. I was on the same contract and had made no request for the filter to be reapplied. I must admit I was quite annoyed and I called up in order to complain and to get the filter taken off again. I was somewhat surprised to find when I got through to the customer services that when I complained the chap I was speaking to took umbrage with me. He stated that Vodafone are under no obligation to take this filter off, they were not accountable for the filter being reapplied and that they were essentially doing me a favour by taking it off at all and I should be grateful, not complaining.

I was pretty taken aback. I had been assertive in my complaint but not rude. I am always mindful in these situations that the call handler is not responsible for the policy but I felt I had every right to complain. I was paying £40+ per month for a smartphone internet service and they were blocking content that I had already told them I wanted.

The call operator insisted on me apologising before we continued. Even though I felt my tone and comments had been fair, I did apologise and we moved on. After this he was friendly and efficient and did take the block off. As far as I know it has been off since.

But what really stuck in my mind was not the argument about the tone of my complaint but the fact that the operator apparently following the policy of Vodafone was so insistent that to allow me full access to the internet was Vodafone doing me a favour! I found this very worrying. Why should a private company be deciding what I can and cannot read online when what I want to read is perfectly legal? It sounded to me like if they so decided they could reapply the filter, refuse to turn it off and I would have no recourse.

If this is right then I think it shines a light on the approach of Vodafone and I suspect other telcos. They think allowing us access to things like betting sites, political satire, LGBT information and "adult content" of other types is a nice extra but not something they need to do. I think this is totally wrong and demonstrates to me why this idea of "opt out" services is so flawed.

In my opinion anyone over the age of 18 should have full access to all legal content on the internet by default. They should not have to go crawling supplicant-like to their ISP to beg them to take the filter off and be told they are being done a favour.

The only person who should be deciding if content is right for my eyes is me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm commenting as someone who works in the industry for a rival but who worked for Vodafone for a number of years (but I write here in a purely personal capacity).

Content blocking is standard on most networks by default simply because there were several outcries by newspapers of under 18's using the latest (then) 3G smartphones to access clearly inappropriate material. Telcos took the decision to require customers to request the removal of filters designed to stop access to Adult, gambling etc sites in order to counter this bad publicity.

The reason for the difference between home and mobile internet access is simply because it was realised that under 18's could use their device anywhere and anytime without parents' control whereas PC's should (at least in theory) be controlled in the house.

It is difficult for Telcos to make the right policy here because they risk a media backlash when kids access porn or gambling sites using their iPhone; at least this way they can be seen to be doing something and putting the onus back were it should be, on the parents.

Obviously I can't really comment on your individual request, but as someone who was involved in many an adult bar removal for Vodafone, we would simply ask the caller to provide ID (a Credit Card) and remove the Bar with no further questions. Unless the policy has changed in the past 18 months, it seems you were simply unfortunate in getting someone who was less than helpful.

I realise you likely gave your CC when opening the account but many devices are taken out for kids. You should have been advised at the point of Sale and any bar removed if requested.

With regards to the content Bar being added after its initial removal, I find this strange. It may be that the original request was only processed as a temporary request (it is actually rather easy to do accidentally when putting the request through the computer) but it might be worth complaining about.