Vodafone defends buggy content filter

Brand protection or child protection?

Vodafone UK has defended the early introduction of adult content filters for its mobile phone users, saying that the system is necessary to protect children.

The operator launched the filters with great fanfare last week, five months ahead of the mobile phone industry's self-imposed deadline. However, aside from a smattering of applause from child protection lobbyists, the response to the launch has been critical.

Al Russell, head of content services at Vodafone, says the company wants parents and guardians to feel that their kids are safe using Vodafone's services. "This is not an area for compromise," he argues. "The choice was, do we want to wait to protect minors until the end of the year, or do we implement a transparent and pragmatic system now?"

Other operators have written the move off as a publicity stunt, pointing out that there is not much competitive advantage in launching first. Their point was made for them: Vodafone has set the system up so that subscribers must prove that they are 18 to be gain access to restricted sites. However, bugs in the software meant large sections of the Net were classified as 18+ classification, regardless of their content.

The filtering system uses a rating service bought in from a third party, which Vodafone is, as yet, reluctant to name. It uses a combination of a database of classified sites, and a dynamic rating service.

Andre Pyler, Vodafone's man on the ground, says the system is classifying everything except for half a per cent of user-requested URLs. In such cases, the URL is sent to a human operator for manual classification.

However, a glitch at launch meant subscribers trying to access pages that were unavailable for other reasons ended up seeing a restricted access notification, instead of a '404 not found' message. Also, the filter automatically barred sites that it couldn't automatically classify. The company says it has fixed both problems, and that complaints have dropped off substantially.

The industry-wide decision to introduce self regulation was prompted by the usual hints from government that life would be oh-so-much-more-complicated if it had to get involved. Vodafone says it was also contacted by several "charity stakeholders", who were just as keen to see some kind of restriction on the access to porn and betting sites.

By the end of 2004, all the operators in the UK will have content regulation, with the still-to-be-appointed Independent Content Board (ICB, as it will be known) taking responsibility for rating content.

The ICB, or the lack of the ICB, is also proving controversial. Although Russell insists Vodafone does not see its role as that of censor, he concedes that the situation will be more comfortable when a third party is responsible for rating content, and there is clear accountability in place. ®

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