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Support Services Websites Cut Off from UK Public by Gov-Backed ISPs

Charity, school and social support websites are being blocked by "overzealous" web filters, which have been designed to protect children from harmful online content. 

According to a study from VPN comparison service Top10VPN.com and Open Rights Group, "In the last two years around 700,000 websites have been blocked by UK ISPs in a Government-backed attempt to protect vulnerable users online."

The report analysed the results of tests on 35 million unique domains across 15 ISPs and mobile providers. The content filters are active in 3.7 million British households, plus mobile phone users who haven't opted out.

The study says that "due to a combination of keyword-based, crude and highly opaque filtering systems," over 400 UK charities, social support and school websites have been hit the hardest. These systems have been found to prevent adults from accessing vital information about drug and alcohol addiction, mental health support and sexual and domestic abuse.

The indiscriminate nature of these filters is underlined by the fact that fewer than 5% of cases of previously blocked sites have failed to be overturned since 2017, while 1,300 blocks were reversed, suggesting that many more have been, and remain, incorrectly censored. The issue is compounded by the fact that many businesses and charities are rarely aware that ISPs are blocking their websites unless their own providers are also filtering them.

Jim Killock, executive director at Open Rights Group, said: “Filters are fundamentally bad products that block too much and too little. Our report shows that website publishers are suffering the consequences. The only decent solution is to be very cautious about using filters. People should only use them if they are clear that they are necessary. Unfortunately, many filters are opt-out, so too many people and homes are using them needlessly.

“ISPs are using out-of-the-box solutions from third parties and so tend to pass the buck on queries about filtering. What we need is greater transparency into how ISPs are blocking sites. It should not be down to the volunteer efforts of donation-driven services such as blocked.org.uk to deal with the problems that this government policy has created.”

The study also found that small businesses had fallen foul of the "aggressive" filters. Drainage companies, for example, had been caught up in ISP filters for using terms like "unblock" under the assumption they are censoring web anonymizers and proxies.

Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.com, explained: “A well-intentioned scheme by the government to protect children from harmful content online has become a textbook example of ill-thought-out and ham-fisted censorship. The irony is that the original intent was to protect the vulnerable online whereas now in-need adults are struggling to find vital information, and charities and support centers are being stifled by indiscriminate filters.

“This is a prime example of what happens when you use a blunt instrument for a delicate task. These crude and decidedly intransparent filters are hurting more than they are helping, and the responsibility to improve this dire situation should now sit with the ISPs and the government.” 

This issue is compounded by the complexity of getting innocent sites unblocked and the response rate in rectifying these issues. Almost three in 10 (27.6%) unblock requests to ISPs from 2018 are still unresolved, with TalkTalk and Virgin Media as the worst offenders.

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