Scottish charity staff providing vital youth services have hit out at "big brother" web filters that are blocking access to their websites.
Research undertaken by transparency campaigners, the Open Rights Group, has revealed that at least 54 registered charities in Scotland have websites which are blocked by one or more of the main UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
Ostensibly put in place to prevent children from viewing images of child pornography or illegal material on the internet, the web filters have been shown by the group's "Blocked" project to be restricting access to a wide range of legitimate websites throughout the country. After testing more than 125,000 websites, including 9000 Scottish charity sites, the group has found that about 10% are blocked by at least one ISP.
Ironically, some of the Scottish charities wrongly blocked by the ISP's default filters provide services that could help young people to escape abuse.
These include Aberdeen based Alcohol Support, a Dundee equalities project called Different Visions Celebrate that works with Under 25's "who have any issues or concerns due to their sexuality or the sexuality of a family member" and the Say Women project in Glasgow which offers: "safe, supported accommodation and related services for young women, aged 16-25 years, who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, rape or sexual assault and who are homeless or threatened with homelessness."
Often the problematic web filters are automatically applied by all the main ISP's by default.
In some cases, before the filters can be lifted, the account holder must prove that they are older than eighteen.
ISPs started to apply the filters after the Westminster coalition government put pressure on the companies by threatening to legislate on the issue. None of the companies publish a list of the sites that have been blocked, a move which has been roundly criticised.
The full list of the sites blocked by at least one ISP includes the anti-smoking campaign group ASH Scotland, Glasgow environmental group Friends of the River Kelvin, an Edinburgh playgroup, and several local religious groups around the country.
No one-click solution to online child protection
Pam Cowburn, Communications Director of the Open Rights Group described the web filters as a "blunt tool," and criticised the Prime Minister for promoting the notion that there there was a "one-click" solution to internet child protection.
She said: "After considerable government pressure, internet service providers have agreed to promote web filters to their customers. David Cameron has said that filters will provide ‘one click protection’ to prevent children and young people from viewing adult content. This is irresponsible.
"We need to teach children and young people how to navigate the web safely, the solution is not to simply switch on a filter and hope for the best. Filters are a blunt tool and as the Blocked project has shown, they block not only sites that pose not harm to young people but sites that are beneficial for them, such as sex and drug health websites.
She also voiced concern over the fact that ISPs do not publish a list of which sites are blocked by their web filters. This prevents people from identifying which sites are wrongly blocked.
"No one wants their children seeing inappropriate content online but nor should parents be guilt-tripped into switching on filters. They need to be informed that by accepting a filter, they are blocking much more than adult content," she explained.
John Downie, Director of Public Affairs, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, backed calls for more transparency. He said: “It’s very worrying that legitimate websites are being blocked at Westminster’s request. These blocks could prevent vulnerable people from accessing the information and support they need from charities at the moment when they need it most.
“It’s extremely important that all Internet Service Providers are open about what sites they are blocking, and have an effective and efficient way of resolving disputes about incorrect blocks. They really must take every step possible to make sure charities, and the vital services they provide people, are not caught up in the crossfire.”
It shouldn't be up to some big brother
Brian Cowie, Manager and Senior Recovery Support Practitioner at Aberdeen based Alchohol Support said he was "appalled" when he learned that the charity website was being blocked by Talk Talk. He said: "These filters are ridiculous. How are we supposed to get people help and into therapy when they need it if they can't get through to us?
"There's no way that I'd want anyone to be unable to reach us. The most important thing nowadays is not just for people seeking help with their alcohol problems to be able to seek help - it's also for their families and their children to be able to access support as well."
He was also struck by the irony of an internet safety initiative blocking his charity's website. He said: "I can't see how blocking our website is making anything any safer. It's making it less safe because people can't access the required help. I don't think these ISPs should be interfering at all. We work within the guidelines set down by the Care Commission, which means people are free to choose. It's their lives, and it shouldn't be up to some big brother to make the choice for them."
Among the other charities that have been wrongly blocked in the North East are the Willows Animal Sanctuary, which is blocked for BT customers, and the Owl And The Pussycat Centre website has been blocked by five different ISPs.
We'd worry that this would prevent us from getting funding
Dawn Fyfe, Director of Glasgow based charity SAY Women, whose website includes prominent advice to potential service users on "covering their tracks" online, said that she'd be writing to Talk Talk immediately after discovering that the firm was blocking her employers website.
She said: "We're disappointed that we're blocked although we welcome any attempt to address the issue of child sexual abuse images on the internet.
She added: "We would worry that this would prevent us from getting funding, but the concern is mostly that service users wouldn't be able to access the information they need to get support. Young people who need safe and secure accommodation, or have experience of sex abuse wouldn't be able to access our information.
Elsewhere in Glasgow, East-end youth project The Sound Lab has a website which is blocked by EE, O2, Vodafone and Sky, whilst the Glasgow City Heritage Trust site is reportedly blocked by Virgin Media and BT.
We're trying to provide a good service for the community
Dundee Church Minister Rev Janet Foggie said it was "quite concerning" when she learnt that the St Andrew's Parish Church website had fallen foul of the web filters put in place by EE, O2, Sky and Vodafone.
"It's completely news to me. The church is on the web so that people can access our services - that's why we have a website - so it would of course be a concern to us if we were being mistakenly blocked. We're trying to provide a good service for the community."
Dundee equalities project, Different Visions Celebrate is also blocked by EE, 02, Sky and Vodafone.
Young people need to be able to learn about the harms caused by tobacco.
Edinburgh-based charity, ASH Scotland, has a website that is blocked by both BT and Vodafone on their default filters. When told of the blocks, Chief Executive Sheila Duffy admitted she was "disappointed," and said: “It’s a real shame if members of the public have been unable to access the wealth of information we have on our site about the dangers of tobacco use and second-hand smoke. It is especially concerning if access from mobile devices is prevented. Young people need to be able to learn about the harms caused by tobacco.
“We hope this issue will be resolved soon as people need our accurate, well-researched resources to counter the misinformation about smoking put out by tobacco companies."
Committed to tackling "over-blocking"
The Open Rights Group research checked all the Scottish Charity website addresses that are held by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.
After testing nearly 9000 sites against ten of the leading ISPs on their default filtering settings, the Open Rights Group identified that the default filters provided by BT were the most likely block Scottish charity sites when they should not be.
In a statement, a spokesperson for BT said: "BT is committed to working with all stakeholders to minimise instances of over-blocking. All our categorisation is done by our third party specialist supplier. Sites that are believed to be incorrectly blocked by BT Parental Controls can be reported by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will then investigate them with our supplier.
The firm also pointed out to that their customers also have the option to add any site they consider to be appropriate to their "allowed list" so it is always available.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport were asked to respond to the issues raised in this article but a spokesperson for the government department said that the operation of the web filters was a matter for the ISPs.
A spokesperson for the independent regulator charged with monitoring which ISPs have implemented the filters, Ofcom, said it was unable to provide a figure for the number of complaints it has received on this issue.
You can check whether any website is blocked and find out more on the Open Rights Group "Blocked" campaign website.
Photo credit: Matt Metts | CC | https://flic.kr/p/4usCtS