Anyone browsing the BBC News Technology section last night might have seen an unexpected appearance of a couple of our projects in this story about illegal streaming of Premier League football games. The story started on Saturday with an email from a volunteer pointing out that Virgin Media, a major Internet Service Provider in the UK, were blocking access to Notes From Nature. All is well now, but if you do experience problems please let us know. If you’d like the background, then read on.
A quick tweet confirmed the problem was widespread and not limited to Notes from Nature, albeit intermittent, and that the explanation given was both aggressive and (although I am not a lawyer) I suspect defamatory. It said that
The two scenarios where sites may be blocked on our service are:
(a) because the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) has asked us to block a particular site to protect children and our customers from potentially illegal content.
(b) we receive an order from the Courts requiring us to prevent access to a certain site, for example in order to help protect Copyright – this is a legal obligation we must comply with.
I was annoyed that we were being blocked, but absolutely livid that volunteers were being told that the only reasons for a block were because of child protection issues or copyright abuse. There was no way we could talk to Virgin rapidly, and no way of clarifying the situation rapidly. I eventually posted on their support boards and by Tuesday was in touch with their IT support. They were, it has to be said, hugely helpful – perhaps because by this stage it was clear that the problems spread way beyond Zooniverse and were affecting much bigger sites.
Apparently, the UK courts issued an order requiring ISPs to block certain IP addresses which had been used by services which were illegally streaming Premier League football. The list was supplied by the Premier League, and the ISPs didn’t (and perhaps – the BBC article isn’t clear – couldn’t) check it. We use dynamic IPs issued by DNS Made Easy, and presumably some of our sites were at some point issued addresses which had previously been used by sites which ended up on the banned list.
The fact that the court could issue an order which didn’t see this coming and that the ISPs would act on it without checking that what they were doing was sensible is, in my opinion, extremely worrying. It shows how little power we as operators of a website have – there are no guarantees that our hard work will travel along the little tubes that make up the internet to make it to your computer, and – although Virgin were nice in this case – it’s disturbing to think we would have had no redress had they decided to keep blocking us. In the midst of a huge political argument in the UK about filtering content online, it’s worth bearing in mind how a simple attempt by a multi-billion pound business to protect its revenue stream ended up, by complete and careless accident, preventing science getting done at the Zooniverse.
PS The Open Rights Group were an invaluable source of information over the weekend while I was trying to work out what on Earth was going on.