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Monday, 19 December 2011

Result! Vodafone now allows internet underwear shopping

This could be another example of the power of blogs and social media, or it could just be coincidence...

Vodafone now allows its customers to buy underwear via their mobile internet service.  I reported at the start of December that Vodafone UK had blocked access to two popular lingerie retailers Bravissimo and Figleaves for customers using their "adult content" filter, which was enabled by default on all standard connections.

Essentially, customers had to prove they were over 18 and say words to the effect of "give me porn" in order to buy bras.  Having spoken to several parents in the interim I was not so surprised to hear of cases where parents had removed the adult content blocker (on non-Vodafone services) for their 14- and 15-years-old children because the block was "more trouble than it was worth."

One parent told me at one time Flickr was blocked on O2's service and twitter.com filtered as adult content on T-mobile, although neither are blocked today.

On the plus side it appears as though mobile ISPs act when a certain level of noise is made online about over-blocking.  I made sure Vodafone UK, Figleaves and Bravissimo were aware of the block.  I never heard back from either company, but it's certainly possible that one or both of the retailers also took the matter up privately with Vodafone, given profits were potentially at stake.

And when this blog was blocked over summer by T-mobile, Kevin Townsend made his readers aware and other blogs followed. Mark Jackson of ISPReview followed up with the ISP and my blog was saved.

On one hand the feedback loop seems to be working, on the other I worry how many websites fall between the cracks and never raise a big enough stink to get unblocked.

I'm interested whether ISPs can be held liable for losses suffered due to unfair blocking, but I'm told this is a completely untested area of law in the UK.  Maybe the risk of financial penalties for over-blocking would make companies far more careful over what they do block.

I've heard reports that some blocking companies, again not directly related to the case under discussion, use the digital equivalent of "sweat shops", paying pennies per link to anyone prepared to surf the internet and classify a website as suitable or not for children.

I can imagine such arrangements find it hard to provide an inventive for accuracy.  Additionally, if such classification takes place overseas, it might not take into account cultural sensitivities.  In some countries even lingerie shops would not get away displaying photographs of models promoting their wares.

A big thanks to an anonymous tipster for the original story and Dominique Lazanski for a wealth of research and insight.



  1. It's a case of will someone miss you when you're -dead-, sorry, BLOCKED.

    You defeat your own argument and need for legal remedy if you're saying sites get unblocked when anyone notices they're blocked.

    Essentially you're saying websites need *readers* in order not to get blocked. Or rather supporters, cheerleaders.

    This is just democracy, isn't it? You're lucky you have readers prepared to support the cause, sites without supporters/readers are quite frankly shit and insignificant.

    I don't mean to bash you and what you're doing hear is really useful, but in overstating the problem you're falling into the trap of so many campaigners before you.

  2. It's an interesting point, and reminiscent of elements of a debate going on in the context of over-blocking of IP addresses with the Newzbin injunction...

    But I don't buy the "enough people will miss you" link to democracy. Firstly no-one deserves not to be missed when they die; and blogs, social media etc are individual works and expressions protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

    The link between life, individuality and expression is important enough to be captured in law and treaties at the highest level. I don't buy there has to be a minimum threshold to be important enough to remain unblocked.

    (Sorry, this is veering into the territory of existentialism)

    On a purely commercial level what your argument supports is effectively a barrier to entry. In a world where a website needs to have enough supporters in order to be unblocked, how the hell will it ever get supporters whilst it remains blocked?

  3. James, one of the things on my 'to do list' is to expand on my work on a 'right to be found (if you want to be found)', which I've mentioned a little bit in my thesis and blogged very briefly about a while ago. I do think ISPs have a obligation in this way - at the very least not to block on an arbitrary basis, and to inform those being blocked that they're being blocked, and why.

    There's a lot more to it too - and even a cursory look at the debate over SOPA and PIPA in the US shows the emotions that can be raised by this, but also the different mechanisms being contemplated by lobby groups and lawmakers to stop material getting out there.... and I don't buy the 'readership' argument much. Some crucial stuff only has a few readers - but to those readers, and to the writer, it can really matter. If one person reads my blog and likes it, that's a result for both of us!


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