When is "Blocking" Not Blocking?

By Gary Kim February 28, 2014

People throw around the term “blocking” rather casually these days, when referring to Internet service providers or governments physically barring access to lawful applications. A recent European Commission study of access network performance is a probable case in point.  

The EC itself simply declares that one in four European internet users still experience blocking of Internet content. Perhaps the clear implication is that ISPs are doing the blocking. That is probably not the case, though it is hard to tell from reviewing the survey instrument used to generate the results.

In fact, it seems as though the survey actually suggests something else: that end users “think” their content is being blocked, and possibly only in the same way that their Internet experience is degraded and slowed by congestion at some times of day.

That blocking might not be the result of formal ISP content policies, but instead only of congestion in a best effort network. But that is a huge difference.

To be sure, there was a time when some mobile network or fixed network service providers attempted to physically prevent their customers from using over the top services such as Skype.

That relatively-brief--and many would say ill-advised--policy generally is not a problem.

The problem with the EC study is that it casually suggests ISPs are blocking content, when what the study suggests is that users perceive their access experience is slow or very slow at times.

That is a good argument for adding physical capacity and reducing contention ratios, to be sure. But the study is not, as might well be inferred, an indictment of ISPs who are preventing users from getting access to lawful apps.

The survey found that 41 percent of surveyed users reported problems watching a video on a mobile device and 37 percent on the fixed Internet connection at home “due to speed limitations or blocking of content.”

But there is no way to tell how respondents interpreted the phrase “blocking.” Nor does the survey instrument provide a definition. The actual question reads--QB14 When using your household Internet subscription, have you experienced any kind of blocking of online content or applications?

When that question immediately follows another question--QB13 When using your household Internet subscription, have you experienced difficulties accessing online content and applications due to insufficient speed or downloading capacity?--you probably can assume the respondent is thinking of instances where the subjective experience was affected by congestion.

It is possible that survey respondents somehow were provided a definition as part of the survey process, but that cannot be determined by reading the survey instrument.

The problem here is the political use of study results that are misleading and imprecise. “Blocking of lawful content” is in some countries unlawful. So a headline that screams “25 percent of European Union consumers experience blocking” is likely to be misinterpreted.

The study likely only refers to subjective consumer opinions about congestion. Those problems are real. But they are not infractions of law. Nor should congestion be considered evidence of ISP content blocking policies. 

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

Contributing Editor

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