Public WiFi Filtering on the Rise

The London summer Olympic games are readily approaching, and Internet Service Providers are responding to the expected dramatic rise in the London population in the coming months by increasing their free public WiFi service offerings. Virgin is rolling out access on the London Tube, and mobile service provider 02 recently announced that it will launch a large free WiFi zone in central London.

With this rise in public hotspots come questions about content filtering and terms of service (TOS). Writing for the Huffington Post, John Carr explains that both of London’s new public WiFi services block both illegal and legal adult content for all users. While Carr advocates for such filters, others are questioning their efficacy and ramifications.

A report (PDF) by the London-based Open Rights Group (ORG) details some potential pitfalls in the existing filters:

We think there are a number of serious problems with how these systems work. These include a lack of transparency, mistakes in classifying sites and the difficulty of opting out of the filtering. Together, these problems mean that people often find content is blocked when it shouldn’t be.

The report does not advocate for unfettered access to all online content, but rather argues that the current filtering technologies are “too blunt an instrument and too poorly implemented.” The report concludes that if filtering of legal content is to occur, then “controls must be clearly and transparently implemented. They should be responsive to mistakes, be easy to opt out of and involve an active choice to opt in.”

While the filters imposed by Virgin and 02 are not legally mandated, a new "Online Safety Bill" has been proposed in the UK’s House of Lords that would require all ISPs and mobile providers to provide opt-out filters on adult content. The future of the bill is uncertain, but a meeting between David Cameron and four major British ISPs (BT, Sky, TalkTalk, and Virgin) in October resulted in a voluntary “Code of Practice” among the four companies. This Code commits ISPs to “educating parents about content controls but does not require them to automatically block content, only allowing access to content deemed ‘adult’ when specifically requested.”

In 2010, ONI published a report on TOS and account deactivations for platforms within the ‘quasi-public sphere’ (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Blogger, Youtube). The document analyzed what content is permissible in these online ‘public’ spaces, and what causes administrative intervention. Both the report and the new ‘public’ WiFi services in London raise the question: in what ways is ‘public’ online space private, and what is at stake when it becomes regulated?