Vodafone Discovers The Headaches Of Content Filtering
By Mike Masnick, Tue Jul 06 21:15:00 EEST 2004

Vodafone launched its new anti-porn filter ahead of schedule -- and apparently ahead of testing. The filters are blocking plenty of legitimate content, raising many questions about the benefits of such filters.

For years, many companies have tried to create porn filters for the internet, and inevitably, those filters run into problems. There are plenty of stories of the filters having both Type I and Type II errors -- false positives and false negatives. Part of the problem is simply in trying to come up with a definition of porn. Not everyone agrees, and any filter will run into problems around the edges. A much bigger problem, however, is that there is always so much new porn out there, that any filter needs to be adaptive to try to figure out what sites should be classified as pornographic without a human filter weighing in. Since the goal is to stop porn getting through, any automated system is tuned to be extra aggressive -- leading to plenty of perfectly reasonable sites getting blocked.

It's not clear if Vodafone thought it would somehow be immune to these problems, or if employees there simply didn't care. Either way, reports are coming in fast and furious about problems with Vodafone's new porn blocking system that requires everyone who wants to view porn on their mobile phone to prove that they're over 18 -- either with a credit card or by showing up in person at a store and requesting access to porn. While it may be a bit embarrassing to go into a store and request the porn gate to be opened, many people who simply want to access the news or their email may find themselves in that position. Apparently, while attempting to block porn the system is blocking Sky News and certain users' Blackberry email accounts, because they might just be pornographic. Others are reporting that things like games sites are also being blocked.

Vodafone now has a lot of frustrated customers, who may need to go go apply for their porn license just to access ordinary non-pornographic content they could access last week. Kids (the ones Vodafone is supposed to be protecting) will still figure out ways around these blocks, just as kids always do when trying to access porn. Meanwhile, since even Vodafone doesn't seem to know who's in charge of "the list," it would be quite easy for Vodafone to start blocking non-partner content providers and later claim it was a technical glitch if they were accused of anything questionable. Hopefully it won't get to that point, but without a clear explanation of how the blocking is being done, or who is putting together the list, questions will linger.

The end result, then, is an expensive system that doesn't work, children who can still access porn, frustrated users who can't access their news and email, and questions about Vodafone's integrity. Also, considering that porn was supposed to be such a big driver of mobile data revenues, that may be lost out as well. Angry customers, lost revenue, children who can still access porn and integrity questions. Perhaps this wasn't the smartest strategic move.