Comcast Protected Browsing Blocks TorrentFreak, Showing Why Site-Blocking Sucks Out Loud Always

from the voluntary-overblock dept

While site-blocking is now a global phenomena, every country appears to be on a different trajectory in how it does this new flavor of censorship. Russia, for instance, looks for any excuse to block the availability of a website on its soil, resulting in absolutely hilarious amounts of collateral damage. Italy is slightly more judicious, but still does its site-blocking sans due process, whereas Ireland has just begun to open the door to site-blocking, with all kinds of major media companies just waiting to barge through it. Here in America, site-blocking is typically reserved for streaming sites during major sporting events and the voluntary blocking companies like Comcast offer with its "Protected Browsing" service.

But let's be clear: all of these points on the spectrum suck out loud. Collateral damage is the rule, not the outlier, and these efforts at justified censorship always creep, if not dash, towards the other line of reasonable behavior. As an example of this, let's go back to the site-blocking Comcast performs for customers who enable its "Protected Browsing" feature. This feature is supposed to protect internet users from malware, unwanted pornography, and pirate sites. It also apparently keeps people from being able to access news sites like TorrentFreak.

A reader alerted us that, when he tried to access TorrentFreak, access was denied stating that a “suspicious” site was ahead. A pirate logo on the blocking page suggests that there’s copyright-infringing activity involved. While it’s no secret that we cover a lot of news related to piracy, it goes a bit far to label this type of news reporting as suspicious.

There are a million possible explanations for how something like this happens. Perhaps the filter is way too aggressive, saw the word "torrent" in the name of the site, and simply blocked it. Perhaps something is being picked up either in the subject matter of the posts at TF, or in the comments, resulting in a block. Perhaps links to other sites contained in the posts are a factor. Or, least likely of all, perhaps someone at Comcast has it in for the folks at TorrentFreak and blocked the site maliciously.

Here's the thing: none of that matters. The only thing that matters is that TorrentFreak is not a malicious site, is not a pirate site, is not a suspicious site, and yet it has been blocked by this feature anyway. The ultimate answer to the question "why?" is that site-blocking like this always sucks, always goes wrong, and always carries out collateral damage. Whether its done through abuse or ineptitude doesn't really matter when the result is the same: innocent sites being blocked.

And if you happen to think TorrentFreak does something nefarious enough to make any of this warranted -- about which you're wrong, by the way -- even more innocuous sites have been caught up in this as well.

Previously, Comcast users reported that this system prevented people from accessing PayPal as well, which is a bit much, and others reported that it stopped the Steam store from loading properly.

So, for proponents of site-blocking as a solution to piracy and all the internet's ills, why in the world would I trust government to do this better than Comcast does it on a voluntary basis?


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  1. identicon
    Patrick, 8 Mar 2018 @ 11:25am

    When I was in law school, I was quoted in an article on TorrentFreak talking about YouTube's copyright policies. Someone in the law school administration saw the article, and included a link to it in an email newsletter they sent out with media mentions of their students. When I tried to view the article while on the campus network, it was blocked by the school's content filters.

    I contacted the school's IT department and tried to explain the situation to them, and was stonewalled with the answer, "the site has torrent in its name, so it's a piracy site." Nothing could make these people see how absurd this was.

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