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So why does Vodafone filter block Sky News?

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Vodafone's new mobile content filtering system, designed to stop children accessing Web nasties with their mobiles, raises more questions than it answers.

In January, the major UK operators agreed to implement a content filtering system, with an independent body in place to rate content, by the end of the year. Vodafone has launched its filtering system five months early, presumably hoping to steal a media victory from under the noses of its rivals.

Child protection groups have welcomed the Voda's decision to begin content filtering before the December deadline, but early indications are that the operator has bitten off more than it can chew.

The Register has been flooded with reports of technical difficulties. Some Vodafone users say they have been unable to access corporate email - Vodafone's Blackberry service was apparently disrupted for a time. Others have been unable to access the Sky News website. Access to pornography, however, does not appear to have been universally restricted.

Vodafone argues that teething troubles are to be expected when a system like this goes live to so many users. It is less forthcoming with explanations of how the system should work, once the problems have been ironed out.

Questions from the floor

How are sites classified? How accurate is that classification, and what should a site do if it thinks it has been unfairly grouped under the 'adult' banner. Why does Vodafone think it can decide what is appropriate content - after all, who is it answerable to? Site operators who feel they have been unfairly or inaccurately classified can appeal to Vodafone to change its mind. But what is the appeals process. And what if a publisher sued Voda for defamation if its website was wrongly tagged as adult content.

Vodafone's customers would like to know the answers. So, it seems would Vodafone. Confusion reigns within the company, which was unable to provide answers to some basic questions about the way the service operates.

Despite two days of calling, we have been unable to determine who at Vodafone is responsible for classifying material; nor have we been able to confirm how the operator is filtering content.

Some users report that they have been unable to access corporate email - Vodafone's Blackberry service was apparently disrupted for a time. Others say that they have been unable to access the Sky News website.

Calls to customer services elicit the explanation that some of the news is deemed too violent for children. An alternative suggestion was that Sky News has a gambling section, which would fall under the banner of restricted access, and cause the site to be barred.

Both explanations are silly. Firstly, whole news sites are blocked because of one story or one section, and secondly, anyone who wants their 16-year old to be able to access the news, has to register them as being over 18. This delivers access to the very sites they are supposed to be protected from.

Yer either with us, or agin us

The problem seems to stem from the binary nature of the classification scheme. So far as we can determine, a site is either universal, or it is adult. There is no middle ground.

There is a way round this: as with services like Bango, content providers are asked to classify their own content as either suitable for universal access, or for adults only. Webmasters can divide their site along these lines and allocate content accordingly. The difference is that Bango asks its client content providers to classify their material like this. Vodafone is asking it of the entire Web.

A spokeswoman for T-Mobile told El Reg that any competitive advantage Vodafone hopes to gain with the move would be short lived.

"This doesn't make Vodafone any more worthy that any of the rest of us," she said. "We are all working on the same systems. T-Mobile has always planned to implement its filtering system once the classification body is in place. It is hard to see how we could do it any other way."

T-Mobile anticipates that this body would be appointed in the next few months. In the meantime, Vodafone is out on its own, and its progress is being watched closely.

Especially by Vodafone's customers, many of whom are already losing patience. ®

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