Be Unlimited has caused a stir with some users who have reported the inability to access some websites hosted by Lycos. It appears that the cause has been Be's implementation of blocking access to child abuse images based on a list published by the Internet Watch Foundation.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is a charity which works in partnership with the government, police and the Internet industry to minimise the availability of illegal content online with particular focus on images of child abuse. They publish a "URL List" of web pages which contain live images of child abuse which is updated twice a day and made available to service providers who have an agreement with the IWF. These usually refer to content hosted outside of the UK since the processes in place for removing such content within the UK are performing well. The IWF claim 99% of all illegal content which is accessible to consumers is hosted outside of the UK. The list of web pages containing such images is based on reports from the public which are verified by the IWF prior to being added to the list, the quality of which it firmly stands by.
An increasing number of service providers subscribe to the list and use it to block their customers from inadvertently accessing web pages which contain child abuse images. The IWF issue guidance on how the list can be used, but explain that ultimately it is up to the service providers to decide what works within their network.
The problems experienced by Be users trying to access legitimate content originate from the way in which the company implemented the blocking of sites on the IWF list. The IWF claim the list contains specific URLs which point to web pages containing live images of child abuse, but blocking these often requires specialist technology which examine the web address in detail. Be's implementation appears to be rather more crude by converting these into IP addresses and blocking all access to those on their network. This has the side effect of blocking access to potentially thousands of other legitimate websites which are not connected in any way with the illegal images, except by the fact they share the same physical server (a normal practice in website hosting environments).
This is an Internet equivalent of blocking access to a large block of flats or an estate because one of the residents has committed a crime without the awareness of the other occupants. An ideal solution would be to only restrict access to the specific flat being used for criminal purposes. It is a question of balancing the interests of victims of abuse and blocking legitimate websites.
"The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) provides a dynamic list of URLs for websites which contain potentially illegal content. This IWF list is supplied to O2 (who own Be Unlimited) who have voluntarily implemented a solution to block access to these URLs. Be have implemented an immediate solution to ensure we are achieving the objective of the IWF but recognise there may be a rare occurrence when a site is inappropriately blocked. If we have denied access to a site that an individual or organisation believes has been mistakenly blocked please contact Be Member Services at email@example.com or open a ticket in the Member Centre giving as much detail as possible. We can then review the site against the IWF list on an exception basis. Be are continuing to work on the solution to minimise these exceptions and we will keep the Be Members up to date with our progress."Be Unlimited Statement
Vernon Coaker MP outlined government targets last year that by the end of 2007, all broadband access providers providing services to the general public should have put into place measures to stop access to child abuse images. The industry has privately expressed concerns both about the cost and effectiveness of the blocking, although service providers are reluctant to speak on record about their concerns for fear of being labelled a supporter of such activities.
Clearly, Be Unlimited is trying to be a responsible service provider by protecting its users from unwittingly accessing content that could land them in prison, but by doing so they are blocking access to other sites which have no relationship whatsoever to any illegal content. It is therefore difficult to criticise them in the short term for implementing a 'quick fix' solution, but we urge them and other service providers to consider this issue as early as possible and implement more permanent and targeted solutions to ensure that only websites showing child abuse images are blocked. It does also present the need to evaluate the reliability of statistics on the success of the systems due to the potential for many 'false negatives' (blocking content which is not illegal) which the varying implementations can cause.
It raises the wider question of the responsibility of server/network operators for content hosted on their network.. Should they not be removing these web pages in the first place?