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Thursday, 1 December 2011

Vodafone customers can't buy underwear online (unless they opt-in to porn)

Profits at some online retailers could be under threat because their websites are being blocked by some ISPs.

UPDATE 19-Dec-2011: both sites unblocked, result!

Vodafone's "child protection" filter, which is switched on by default for all new customers, currently blocks lingerie websites bravissimo.com and figleaves.com.

Following a tip-off, we used an iPhone connected to the Vodafone network.  The account holder had not asked for any filtering measures to be added or removed from their connection.  We were unable to access these two popular retailers, as well as a range of alcohol suppliers.

The question isn't "why would children want to buy lingerie" because these filters are active by default for all customers.

The question then is whether the average [adult] customer of these websites has had the forethought and motivation to disable the content filter on their account.  Indeed customers might feel embarrassed asking for the block to be lifted, as, essentially, the message behind this action is "I want to access adult content."

Blocked websites could be losing money to rivals.  We found several high street clothing chains and department stores who happen to sell underwear or alcohol as part of a wider product range are not blocked, raising the possibility that potential customers will turn to alternative retailers rather than getting the content filter removed from their connection.

Additionally, we've discovered this morning that Vodafone's "child protection" filter allows access to a host of pornography hosted on popular photo sharing websites.  The filtering system doesn't stop customers signing up for services at these websites, nor does it stop them checking boxes confirming they wish to access "restricted" content, thereby allowing access to pornography in circumvention of such filters.

As an earlier commenter points out, filtering systems seem nothing but a fig leaf, and may leave parents under the false impression that the internet in their child's pocket is "safe".

"Voluntary" blocking schemes operate with no transparency and oversight, and website owners usually only find out by accident their sites are blocked.  My own blog slightlyrightofcentre.com, a blog which often focusses on issues of web censorship, was itself blocked for a while by T-mobile's adult content system, until I kicked up a fuss.

Open Digital has a policy position on this, calling for such filters to offer transparency of the sites they block.  ISPs offering filtering should provide a mechanism for website owners to test if their websites are blocked, and a dispute resolution service so that sites who find themselves unfairly blocked can get themselves unblocked, and quickly.

I'm hearing disturbing news that Downing Street policy chiefs want to expand adult content filtering systems to fixed-line ISPs too, in a move designed to attract female voters.  I think it's safe to assume such policies are being developed by men, as the women I spoke to on this issue aren't convinced by a policy which blocks them from their shopping.



  1. How apt. Figleaves.com - blocked by a "safety" system which is itself nothing but a fig leaf. We're now well and truly in the grip of a moral panic around the internet. It wouldn't surprise me if this time next year laws will force all ISPs to limit customers to Facebook and the Daily Mail websites!!

  2. I had heard that customers had to pay to get the block lifted.


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