Skip Navigation

Be Unlimited causes stir in effort of blocking child abuse images
Thursday 11 October 2007 07:34:32 by Sebastien Lahtinen

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 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?


Posted by carrot63 over 9 years ago
If an ISP cannot correctly understand the issues involved with website blocking, it doesn't give much hope that law enforcement or government will do any better.
Posted by lunatic over 9 years ago
I like the flats comment. But just to say its like the BE running the postal service and the IWF saying don't deliver to
Mr Smith,
Flat O/2,
1A St Lost Street,
NW1 3AA.

And BE saying okay we block anything to NW1.

Also prospective people should note this is O2 / BE ....
Posted by KarlAustin over 9 years ago
To be honest, it's a pointless exercise, if these deviants want to access these kinds of images, it doesn't take much imagination to work out how to do so with these blocks in place. It's just going to cost ISPs money and achieve nothing in real terms - apart from to make it harder to see who is viewing them (VPNs anyone?). So whilst the stats will say it is a success (less websites viewed) what they will really mean is, "less websites viewed that we can detect because they are protecting their channels"
Posted by seb (Favicon staff member) over 9 years ago
Karl - the purpose of the blocking is not to stop determined individuals accessing content (which let's face it probably doesn't use websites but p2p distribution if music is anything to go by; but it's to stop accidental access by innocent consumers..
Posted by CARPETBURN over 9 years ago
I wonder if their so called protecting of innocent users blocks real innocent user lycos email service?
Posted by adriandaz over 9 years ago
CARPETBURN, hardly any point? considering the hundreds of free email services out there? Besides, o2 offer free email accounts anyway...
Posted by CARPETBURN over 9 years ago
Errr certain email services from lycos cost money if you had paid money for an email service and your isp blocked it wouldnt you be a tiny bit annoyed?
Posted by dopamine2 over 9 years ago
Child abuse is a sensitive subject, so this heavy handed censoring won’t be criticised as much as it should be, but really it's Be playing at Big Brother. Block accurately, or not at all, otherwise many innocent web users will be punished because of the illegal activities of a few.

And Seb's comment that "it's to stop accidental access by innocent consumers"? I don't need nannying. If I accidentally come across child abuse images, I'll do the right thing and report them to the proper legal authorities.

"Big Brother", "The Nanny State".. I'm an adult, so treat me as such please.
Posted by c_j_ over 9 years ago
"the ... blocking is ... to stop accidental access by innocent consumers."

Maybe. It may also be to give the ISPs (etc) involved an excuse in case anyone decides to sue them - "we were doing everything we could" etc. This is one reason why organisations employ tools like Websense.

It's quite dim to block by IP address rather than URL. Another instance where dear departed Metronet (with an optional caching/filtering proxy, filtering by URL rather than IP) was an industry leader. If a tiny (in staff terms) ISP like Metronet could do it properly, why can't... oh well.
Posted by meldrew over 9 years ago
If IWF have updated lists twice daily somebody must be looking at one heck of a lot of illegal material. Why don't the police follow up these links and get at the suppliers?

Having surfed the net for years I just do not believe it is possible to access an illegal image accidentally to the extent that the ISPs need to nanny everyone.
Posted by meldrew over 9 years ago
P S the top of this screen contains a Google ad - "photos of cute girls"

I rest my case m'lud.
Posted by shaunhw over 9 years ago
In Saudi Arabia, (which censors far more than we do) users are INFORMED about web censorship, unlike here.

I have no problem with blocking child abuse but it should end there, WITHOUT any side effects. Proxy servers make the whole thing almost a waste of time, and perfectly legal material is being censored as a side effect. It is the government pretending to the public they can fix an issue which in reality is far more difficult to deal with.

As someone else pointed out, it's probably better if such pictures are simply reported so they can be removed, wherever they are in the world.
Posted by doowles over 9 years ago
Abuse images today, piracy tomorrow, criticising the government? where does one draw the line?
Posted by plesbit over 9 years ago
I'm with Doowles. It may start with an easy target like child abuse images because no-one is likely to protest but it is always that crucial first step which is the most difficult. It's much easier after that to just ramp it up little by little.
Posted by plesbit over 9 years ago
Believe me, I'm no conspiracy theorist (or wasn't anyway) but this government has shown it is quite willing to use fear to justify awarding itself lots of extra powers and control - and it's always "for our safety and protection". So censorship of the internet now, for "our protection"? Slippery slope, I tell you.

And besides, false "positives" are almost guaranteed. Once knew someone in Quatar who couldn't access websites from the universities of Sussex, Essex, Middlesex.... yadda yadda yadda.
Posted by Dawn_Falcon over 9 years ago
The IWF has been operating for some time, doowles. It hasn't turned into an instrument of government oppression yet, and I don't believe it will. That Be have implimented it in a brain-dead way is not about the IWF, it's about Be.

If you view the images being specifically blocked, you sre breaking the law. Accidental viewing *might* be accepted as a defence, depending on the circumstances.

But depending on it? Um..there is some malware which put images into your browser cache without showing them to the user, for example. It'd show multiple accesses.
Posted by herdwick over 9 years ago
An interesting publicity stunt to promote the struggling service after its latest price cuts ?
Posted by c_j_ over 9 years ago
Publicity stunt? Maybe, but if enough word gets out about the incompetent way the blocking job was done, it'll not be *good* publicity. Have Bulldog's (or Pipex's?) management moved to Be, or something?
Posted by comnut over 9 years ago
yada yada yada....... and all the people in Scunthorpe feel the pain.... :D :D

- and as for too much or too little fitering - how about the poor sexually abused kids, trying to get help??? are you goiung toi lock them out, too???
You must be logged in to post comments. Click here to login.