I have to go to Sweden to see Norma. Anyone else might think she is some Abba-style blonde for who I have fallen but I am sure I can trust the readers to realise I am talking about the Swedish ammunition company Norma. Being a modern sort of bloke, I do more than half of my internet surfing on my mobile phone – a tablet-like think called unfortunately a ‘Dell Streak’, which makes anyone watching me use it recall the days of the brick telephones of the 1980s. It was free from the telephone provider O2, which provides my and 20 million other people’s mobile phone services.
Unlike many of the other 20 million, I have learnt to enjoy some respect from O2, because of the mount of minutes I rack up each month. I was once in a queue at the phone shop of pay-as-you-go customers who had clearly not paid-as-they-had-gone. The staff were grumpy by the time it got to my turn. “What’s your phone number?” demanded the teenage mooncalf behind the counter. “07850 195353,” I replied. He tapped the numbers into the system – and his manner changed as he watched the screen. “Oh sir,” he said, suddenly respectful. “Everything in here is free to you.”
“Jolly good. I’ll take her. Have her washed,” was my immediate response, but happily it stayed in my head.
So with the modern appliance I now have, finding Norma’s physical address is a doddle. I tap it into Google on my phone and… oh. What’s this? I’m not allowed to view the website until I have reassured O2 that I am over 18. I have to pay £1 for the pleasure of making them feel certain about my age. And there is some blurb about how I will get £2.50 credited to my account. Suddenly I am feeling shirty.
Firstly: how dare they stop me from visiting the website of a legitimate company. Secondly, I own a website called Gundealer.net which receives lots of hits form people trying to find the address of British gunshops, very often on their mobile phones, so are O2 users banned from visiting that too? Thirdly, I have been a customer of O2 for 19 years, so how come I have to prove all of a sudden that I am over 18? And fourthly, what’s this £2.50 refund for a £1 payment – surely a scam? Am I going to have to pay £1 for re-reassurance of my age every time I visit a website?
My worst fears are quickly realised. Norma.cc and Gundealer.net are both proscribed websites and the length of my relationship with O2 has apparently no relationship with my age. According to O2, this is so that “customers are protected by the age verification system”. I’m not feeling protected. I’m feeling excluded. And it is not just shooting websites. I can’t even access some car websites.
Looking at the problem on the Blogosphere, there is similar anger to my own. Some people have gone into their local phone shops, said “take a look at me, I’m clearly over 18” and had the bar taken off without proving age or ID. I am still fuming that I have to make the half-hour journey into my local town in order to do that. Smoke is rising from the keyboard as I type this. The phone companies have joined the call centres and the railway companies in their disdain for customers. Paying £1 to prove my age so I can continue to use what I consider to be a handy business tool in the industry I which I work is like being apologised to on an empty station platform by a recorded message or held in a queue of equally frustrated callers and recorded for ‘training purposes’. It is a plain lie, and as erring politician after erring politician has learnt about the British public, it doesn’t matter if you err – just don’t lie about it. We don’t forgive liars.
Of course, as a fearless crusader, my next step is to contact O2. “This is likely to cast you as the bad guy in my next column,” I wrote to them in a typically Britishly unstrongly worded email..
They are clearly feeling a bit sensitive about this PR disaster because a spokeswoman got back to me within minutes.
“Like all operators and ISPs, O2 is required to block illegal and criminal content, as defined by the Internet Watch Foundation,” wrote my correspondent Sarah Taylor. “In addition, we also have policies in place for content rated 18+. All the operators subscribe to a classification framework, drawn up by the Independent Mobile Classification Board (IMCB), for content that they promote or market.”
Grrr – in what way is Norma, a company that goes back to the 19th century and is one of the pillars of the international sporting shooting industry, “illegal” or “criminal”?
“O2 applies the same framework to Internet access,” she continues, unaware of mounting fury. “Sites are automatically categorised and, if they are deemed suitable for those aged 18 and over, they require age verification. You will appreciate that as the internet is so vast this can only be done in an automated way. Inevitably some websites are mistakenly caught up in the block. Where that happens, we will of course take action to unblock sites, where appropriate, and as quickly as possible.”
Well actually Sarah I don’t appreciate why it had to be done, let alone done automatically. I cannot see why O2 has this sudden burst of what it believes is conscience and bans a customer of nearly 20 years from using its service until they make an ex gratia payment from their credit cards.
“We apologise if - as a customer or as a website - you have been inconvenienced by this new system, which we are applying for the purposes of child protection and not for any commercial gain.”
Don’t try to occupy the moral highground Sarah. That’s the same as lying. Your company cocked it up.
It is interesting that O2 is trying to blame other organisations. I got in touch with the IWF and the IMCB. Both deny the shooting website ban came from them.
The IMCB provides guidelines for and arbitrates on paid-for content delivered to mobile phones. This is typically ringtones, but can include video. As a result, it bans ‘violence towards realistic humans and animals’ and ‘any emphasis on the use of easily accessible lethal weapons, for example knives’. It does not, however, specifically ban activities such as gambling or shooting. Its classification advice says: “No theme is specifically prohibited though these may be subject to other legal requirements. Content must not actively promote or encourage activities that are legally restricted for those under 18 such as drinking alcohol or gambling.”
Similarly, the IWF only takes reports on issues related to its remit: child sexual abuse images hosted anywhere in the world; criminally obscene adult content hosted in the UK; incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK; non-photographic child sexual abuse images hosted in the UK. “We do not deal with shooting websites,” says a spokesperson.
So O2 has come up with its new found dislike of shooting sports all by itself. Well not quite. This goes back to the fuzzy-headed but pernicious actions of the Advertising Standards Authority, which last year issued a list of ‘demerit’ activities such as pornography, betting tips and, inexplicably, shooting sports. The ASA has banned legitimate shooting sports from its world while still encouraging violent computer games and films. This clear case of minority bashing now has an enthusiastic follower in O2. Even IMCB spokeswoman Dr Shirley Dent confirms her organisation has been guided by information from Ofcom and the ASA
Eventually my anger subsides. I send a respectful email back to Sarah: “Thanks for your positive response. Of course, that leaves me without a bad guy for my column now,” I write, along with a (far from comprehensive) list of shooting sports websites I have asked O2 to relist.
“How very gracious of you,” she replies.
Right, that’s it…