#O2Fail - What You Need To Know About Mobile Phone Content Control

by @edent | , , , , , | 8 comments | Read ~6,846 times.

WARNING This article and pages it links to, contain information about pornography and sex education which may be offensive to Daily Mail readers. These are the hurried lunchtime writings of a chap with too much on his plate.

So, O2 has apparently angered the Internet Gods by switching on its Adult Content Filter. This means anyone who wants to look at adult material on the web will have to pay a fee to prove they are over 18.
Of course, their filter is broken - so it's caught sites like Google Translate and B3ta and banned access to them.
And, naturally, there's no easy way to unlock this bar without walking into an O2 store and shouting loudly and proudly "I LIKE MASTURBATING AND WOULD LIKE MY PHONE UNLOCKED SO I CAN LOOK AT PORNOGRAPHY AND MASTURBATE. And then translate it into Russian via Google Translate."

I've written before about censoring the web. I also used to work for a Mobile Network Operator looking after, in amongst everything else, adult media. You can watch my video from SMC London discussing how (some) MNOs approach adult material. I think it's fair to say I know a little bit about this subject.

In my attempt to educate the world, let me explain some things about mobile Internet filters.

There are only five things you need to know...

Government Isn't Involved

There is no government regulation, nor law telling mobile phone operators they have to block adult content. The government has said "Regulate yourselves, or we'll impose regulation upon you."

This is a fairly common trick. You may have heard it expressed as "Nice business you've got there. It would be a shame if anything ... happened to it..."

But, as we will see, it's not just the threat of red tape that keeps people up at night.

Fear Is A Great Driver

What every MNO live in fear of, is the Daily Mail headline which runs...

PERVERTS! Now Sick Mobile Phone Bosses Peddle Porn To YOUR CHILDREN (and you have to pay for it!)

That's it. Game over. Share price plummets, you lose your job, your name's in the papers and you lose your kids in a custody battle. Fear drives people to be ultra-conservative even when they realise what they are doing is irrational.

This Isn't Porn

Linda Lusardi

I know what you're thinking. That's a porno-shot of Linda Lusardi. Obviously, that's unsuitable for children.

You could not be more wrong. Ever since 17th November, 1970 - when The Sun published a nude photo of Stephanie Rahn - shots like this have been counted as "family friendly".

Essentially, Rupert Murdoch doesn't run a porn empire - therefore, anything which appears in The Sun is family friendly. And if you try to classify it under "Adult" they'll sue the arse off you. Allegedly.

Simply put: porn isn't porn when it appears in The Sun. That's why most UK MNOs don't block page three - indeed, it's why they're quite willing to sell soft-core pornography to anyone, regardless of age.

The hypocrisy of the tabloid media is quite something to behold.

This Is Banned

Sex Positive
Campaign's like Brook's Sex Positive often fall foul of automated content checking. Because they have words like "vagina", "orgasm", and "contraception" - it's easy for computers to get confused and think that they are porn.

So, kids can see topless women but they can't learn how to put on a condom. Helpful.

It Doesn't Work

There are two things which regularly fail with censoring.

  1. False Negative. You can't catch every dirty image on the Internet.
  2. False Positives. It's easy to misclassify "safe" sites as "bad" sites.


Wanking is legal in this country. There's no good reason why anyone should have to go on record as saying that want to look at wobbly bits.

Because it's easy for a kid to find a site that isn't blocked - or to "borrow" mum or dad's credit card - it's of no serious concern to the intrepid kid. It does suck if they want to find out how not to get AIDS though.

So, we're stuck with a situation that's expensive for MNOs, embarrassing and annoying for consenting adults, and trivial for a child to bypass.

Everyone knows that mobile web censorship doesn't work. But it has to be done otherwise the media will get upset. If the press get upset - then you get upset. So it's all for your own good.

8 thoughts on “#O2Fail - What You Need To Know About Mobile Phone Content Control

  1. Scott Hughes says:

    What is most ironic about this is that in a world of WiFi devices this is even sillier than it seems. It's perfectly possible to access a "forbidden" site at home on a WiFi network and then be blocked as you leave the house!

  2. Solarisfire says:

    Wow some of your facts are glaringly wrong.

    O2 has switched on its adult content filter? No it just finished switching it on, its been on for most devices for many years, and no1 complained.

    You can unlock it by phoning up, or by using a web page. You don't have to shout it out in store.

    The government is involved, O2 was the LAST provider to turn on something like this. And Tony Blair was about to impose sanction if they didn't, it was discussed behind closed doors, not in the public eye, as they didn't want outrage from millions of parents going zomg my son can look at boobs on his phone someone must answer for this.

    I'd prefer children not to see that chicks boobs.

    Yes the blacklist that they are running on isn't flawless, but it will evolve, improve, and eventually sites like that will not be banned.

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for your comments.
      If you read O2's blog on the subject, you'll see that they have just switched it on for a large number of people. There have been regular complaints - certainly there were when I was involved in Voda UK's content filter.

      Taking a look at Twitter, it appears that the website is not working for many people - and there are delays ringing up. So if you're desperate to use Google Translate, you have to go into a shop.

      I think you and I are in violent agreement about the next two points. There is no legal power compelling companies to do this - it's all done under threat.
      Even if you have the filter ON - your kids can still see page three. Remember, topless women aren't porn according to the media.

      Finally, they've been running blacklists for years and they still haven't evolved or improved. I doubt we'll see any change to that situation.



      1. Solarisfire says:

        You'll always get complaints from unprepared people when this type of thing happens, yeah maybe o2 should have announced it earlier and explained it, but this was inevitable.

        Don't need to go into a shop and shout, their staff are clever enough to talk at a normal volume level...

        It is all done under threat, o2 would go under if it was spun in the right way, the media has far too much power...

        Page 3 is meant to be blocked under the blacklist they are using? The internet changes so fast, and there is so much content that no black list will ever be perfect, so some of it is being safe rather than being sorry...

        It will be much easier to turn this off if not needed once the rush of this batch of people going into the service dies down, but as I said, they have actually been filtering for close to 3 years 😉

  3. Lyle says:

    I did a bundle of work back in the 90s for Research Machines (RM) near Oxford, who did a lot of the school system's filtering.

    They opted for a whitelist of "known-good" sites as the preferred branch of operations, but also operated a blacklist of "known bad" sites. It depended (if memory serves) on what the individual schools wanted as a setup.

    My job? Finding sites and adding them to the blacklist. Yep, actively *looking* for porn sites, and getting paid for it. It was a weird job...

    The whitelist method's good in general though - so long as you can add sites to the whitelist - but non-feasible for a mobile operator or ISP. Too many complaints etc. Hence the auto-blacklist option. At least most of them have got past the barring of sites about (for example) Scunthorpe and Essex.

    1. The only problem with the whitelist method is that sites regularly change hands - as Tory MP Francis Maude found out.

      Regarding Scunthorpe and Essex - I once worked with a Japanese guy whose email constantly bounced because his name contained "shit" in it...

      Thanks for the comment.


  4. nik butler says:

    Which may be why I upset many by suggesting that before we over turn a govt we need to overturn our media.

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