If you follow us on Twitter or Facebook, you may have seen my occasional screams about my mobile phone provider. Specifically, my provider is EE, and my problem is that they really, really don’t want me to look at porn (or anything else their filtering system considers unsuitable for under-18s).
I’m in my forties, and I’ve been an Orange customer for years. I also disabled Content Lock (EE’s version of mobile content filtering) years ago. So when I upgraded my phone at the start of this year, and was transferred from Orange to EE (a joint venture between Orange and T-Mobile), I expected nothing to change. But it didn’t take long to discover that my shiny new HTC One, equipped with super-fast 4G access, wouldn’t let me look at porn.
I phoned EE, who explained that industry guidelines require providers to re-enable content filtering (OK, enough euphemism – let’s call it what it is: Internet censorship) every time a customer upgrades their phone. Presumably, this is in case the customer becomes younger between upgrades. It could happen, right? You’ve never seen Benjamin Button?
So anyway, the nice man at EE switched off Content Lock for me, and all was well. For a few weeks anyway, until one day, I found my Internet access censored again. So I phoned EE again, and the (confused) support person apologised, and uncensored my phone. And then some time later it happened again. And again.
Today, I phoned them again with the same problem. And finally, EE admitted fault. A known system bug is blocking content, even for age-verified adults who have requested uncensored access to the Net. I pointed out that this has been happening to me for months, and they admitted that this problem has been happening for a long time.
It certainly has. For my book, Porn Panic (it’s coming soon, thanks for your patience!) I interviewed Sue, a Twitter follower who has had the same problem for far longer than me, and told me:
Over a period of six months I was having to call at least once a day to remove the filter, I couldn’t access blogs, adult sites, national lottery etc even Google was blocked on occasion. The call centre staff were genuinely apologetic and we ended up on first name terms! Apparently once I proved I was over 18 the filters would be permanently turned off. I did say there was no way I could be below 18. I pay via direct debit each month, the account is in my name and I have been a customer of theirs for over 10 years. They agreed that indeed was proof enough but some system glitch meant it wasn’t clearing properly.
As a person who keeps a close eye on censorship activity, I often find it hard not to get drawn into conspiracy theories. I don’t believe that anti-sex Nazis at EE are deliberately censoring adults’ phones against their will. But I do believe that the system is rigged to discourage people from getting full Internet access. Few people are as persistent as myself or Sue. Many people leave their filtering switched on (the default setting) out of laziness, lack of time, or to avoid the embarrassment of asking a stranger to switch on the porn.
We are facing censorship by a thousand cuts. Mobile phone filtering which is enabled by default, and which re-enables itself whenever we upgrade our phones. Home filtering which is “optional”… so long as you are the bill payer (if your wife, husband, parent or landlord has switched off the porn, then tough luck). Public WiFi networks that are increasingly filtered, with no option to switch them off.
The stupidest thing about all of this is that the filtering is so easy to circumvent. I install the Tor browser on all my devices, which allows me to access the uncensored Internet, and avoid state surveillance in the process (Tor browsers are available for PC, Mac, Android and iOS devices – unless you believe that you should be blocked and spied upon, I’d recommend installing them).
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Amusingly, the EE support engineer I spoke to today gave me a workaround for their own accidental blocking, telling me that the Opera Mini browser also circumvents their filtering.
But we shouldn’t laugh too loud: filtering technology will no doubt strengthen; and attacks on Tor (or the Dark Net as the mainstream media refers to it) are increasing; the implication being that people who seek online privacy must be potential gangsters, terrorists and/or paedophiles.
We shouldn’t have to be circumventing filtering or spying systems. While filtering is a perfectly valid option for ISPs to offer their customers, it shouldn’t be mandated in any way, or switched on by default. Filtering is just the first step: don’t expect the control freaks within the UK state to leave it here. Both Labour and Conservative parties have joined the Porn Panic, so don’t expect a change of government to make things any better. The campaign to uncensor the Internet must go on.