The United Kingdom has some weird censorship quirks, like not allowing people to depict their government in a satirical manner. However, for the most part, state intervention in internet use is not infringing on UK citizens’ freedoms. The UK government focuses its censorship on:
- Limiting access to torrent sites
- Blocking some pornographic content
- Taking down terrorist propaganda
- Running surveillance operations on people’s online activities
The only real problem is the surveillance, but you can protect your anonymity by using a good Virtual Private Network, like ExpressVPN.
The United Kingdom has one of the world’s highest internet penetration rates. With over 95 percent of its population of 66.02 million having access to home or mobile broadband.
Almost 100% of internet users are within range of ADSL connections and a 4G network. Moreover, the 2017 Digital Economy Act ensured that access to a broadband connection with a minimum speed of 10 Megabytes per second (Mbps) is effectively a legal right in the UK.
The UK offers relatively unrestricted access to internet content. The filtering and blocking that is in place, is there to remove illegal materials, such as copyrighted media, and child pornography. Moreover, they try to prevent minors from accessing pornographic materials.
There is little to no evidence of politically motivated censorship by the UK government. However, in the wake of several high-profile terrorist attacks, the UK Parliament passed the controversial Investigatory Powers Act, which significantly upgraded law enforcement’s ability to conduct surveillance and data collection, even on individuals not suspected of committing a crime.
In this article, we will look at what powers the UK government has to censor the internet, how they use them, and what effect the Investigatory Powers Act has on internet privacy.
What Content Does the UK Government Censor?
The UK government usually doesn’t get involved in the type of content that people share on the internet. They do have some interesting legal quirks, like how no content can depict their Parliament houses satirically, but generally people can share content freely on the internet if they live in the UK. However, the UK government does censor pornography, terrorism propaganda and torrenting, so let’s get into the details.
The Digital Economy Act, which came into force in 2017, contained several provisions which required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and adult content providers to verify the age of users who are attempting to access online pornography.
The Act has generated controversy because it also includes provisions for the blocking of “extreme” pornographic material. The standards by which they judge pornographic material “extreme” were criticized as poorly defined and unevenly applied and drew sharp criticism from civil and female rights activists.
Because the Digital Economy Act requires those attempting access to online pornography to verify their age, most commonly done through providing credit card details, there are concerns that personal data could be leaked or hacked, as was the case for the infidelity site, Ashley Madison.
There is also some concern that owners of multiple high profile pornographic sites, such as the marketing company MindGeek, the owners of Pornhub, RedTube, and YouPorn, and the adult film production companies Brazzers, Digital Playground, Men.com, Reality Kings, and Sean Cody, could use age verification data to profile UK customers and sell that data to 3rd parties in a manner similar to Facebook.
Illegal material and terrorist content
ISPs in the UK must block access to any content depicting child sexual abuse and provide parents with an “unavoidable choice” whether they want to enable parental control filters to regulate the content that their children have access to.
A lot of minors use mobile devices in the UK, so they require all mobile service providers to block access to pornographic content for customers who cannot prove that they are over 18 years of age.
Under the 2006 Terrorism Act, any content which contributes to “the glorification or promotion of terrorism” is blacklisted by the parental control filters provided by ISPs and is not accessible from publicly funded facilities, such as schools and libraries.
They also require UK ISPs to block any domain or URL that hosts content that infringes on UK copyright regulations. The UK High Court can also order websites and platforms to take down copyrighted material but they are not legally liable for user-hosted content unless they refuse to remove it.
The UK has always been way ahead of the world in censoring and blocking torrent sites. For example, the UK government worked with ISPs in 2012 to block access to The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents, two famous torrent websites, a full three years before the US took Kickass Torrents down.
This is one way the UK Government limits access to the internet, even if torrenting is not illegal. UK citizens, however, can use a VPN to bypass this regulation, so we’ll talk more about VPNs below.
How Does the UK Government Censor the Internet?
UK-based ISPs use a content filtering technology known as Cleanfeed. Developed by British Telecom in 2004, Cleanfeed is a hybrid system of IP address blocking and deep packet inspection (DPI) based URL blocking. Cleanfeed operates as a two-stage mechanism that filters out specific internet traffic.
While Cleanfeed bears some similarity to the DPI filtering methods employed by Iran and China, the program complies with European Union regulations on internet privacy because it does not enable a “detailed, invasive analysis of the contents of a data packet.”
The UK Government also cooperates with social media platforms to remove hate speech of any kind, which is, in theory, an infringement on free speech, but it’s a well-planned system that protects the disenfranchised from harm online.
On another positive note, the UK government also works closely with civic groups to maintain freedom of speech online. For example, they tried to pass a law in 2006 that would make it illegal to offend someone based on their religious beliefs. However, when both religious organizations and secular NGOs fought against it, the bill was repealed and changed to protect free speech.
The 2006 Terrorism Act mandates the removal of online material that glorifies or praises terrorism, could be of use to terrorists, or in any way incites individuals to carry out or support terrorist acts.
To investigate internet materials hosted in the UK and oversee the removal of any instances of “jihadist propaganda,” the UK government set up the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) in 2010.
CTIRU creates a blacklist of URLs hosting terrorist material outside of the UK and passes it on to service providers to be included in their optional parental filtering. In 2015, the UK Home Secretary reported CTIRU was taking down “about 1,000 pieces of terrorist-related material per week.”
Despite the creation of a task force and expanded powers to combat hate speech, law enforcement in the UK continues to struggle to apply the 2006 Terrorism Act, particularly in the cases of content hosted by large, overseas-based, social media platforms.
During several high-profile terrorism trials in 2017 and 2018, the UK police reported that they were unable to convince Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to remove content that “consistently promoted jihadist violence and glorified acts of terrorism.”
Website owners and platforms who knowingly host user-generated content promoting terrorism or hate speech, and refuse to remove it when made aware of its existence, can be legally held liable under EU Directive 2000/31/EC (the E-Commerce Directive).
The Investigatory Powers Act
The most significant change to internet freedoms in the United Kingdom over the last decade is the signing into law of The Investigatory Powers Act (IP Act) in 2016. The IP Act allows UK law enforcement and intelligence agencies to collect bulk surveillance data on UK citizens through interception, equipment interference, and data retention.
At the time of its passing, the IP attracted huge criticism from a range of political perspectives and prompted Ewan MacAskill, a journalist for the Guardian newspaper, to suggest that the IP Act had given the UK government “the most sweeping surveillance powers in the western world”.
With the IPA, the UK government jeopardized the integrity of internet users’ civil rights. It allows government agencies to surveil anyone, even if they didn’t commit a crime. Data can be gathered through a wide range of activities, including “remote access to computers, to downloading the contents of a mobile phone covertly during a search” and security services are not obligated to inform individuals that their data is being kept.
In April 2018, an investigation by the UK High Court ruled that several provisions of the Investigatory Powers Act, regarding access to individual’s data, was incompatible with EU law.
The EU forced the UK to amend the legislation by November 2018. On the 31st of October, 2018, they added provisions that increased the threshold of when the government can undergo surveillance, to only target extremely dangerous activity, or actual suspects. Regardless, people in the UK still fear the infrastructure is used for lower-profile cases, so many people use a VPN to circumvent government surveillance.
Is a VPN Legal to Use in the United Kingdom?
Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is one of the best ways to circumvent any ban on internet use, and maintain your anonymity.
Additionally, VPN use is entirely legal in the UK, and many internet users make use of a VPN to ensure their online privacy, especially considering the increased powers of the UK government under the IP Act.
What are the Best VPN Services to Use in the United Kingdom?
If you want to bypass any governmental regulation, or if you’re just worried about being surveilled, you can always use a VPN to mask your online activity. Here are the best ones you can find.
ExpressVPN’s super-fast and stable service is ideal if you are traveling and want to keep your communications secure and have full access to all the content you are used to.
With over 2000 servers worldwide and military-grade encryption, ExpressVPN is precisely what you need to circumvent local content restrictions and make sure that cybercriminals can’t access your information online. To keep you happy with their service, ExpressVPN also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee. You can try their service, totally free, for one month before committing.
Lastly, because ExpressVPN has the extra streaming features, and a lot of reliable servers in western countries, it’s the best pick for anyone in the United Kingdom, even if it can be a bit pricier than its alternatives.
- Very easy to use VPN
- Perfect for anonymous browsing, downloading, and streaming (i.e. Netflix)
- 3000+ servers in 94 countries
If you are looking for a VPN that takes your anonymity as seriously as you do, then look no further than NordVPN. With P2P support for downloading torrents, a vast range of servers in over 54 countries, high-level encryption, a built-in kills switch, and an encrypted chatting service, you don’t have to worry about online surveillance, regardless of where you are or what you are doing.
NordVPN also has a “no log record” policy, meaning your actions are as anonymous as they can be and, because NordVPN is headquartered in Panama, they are under no legal obligation to share your details with anyone, ideal if you are worried about being spied on under UK’s surveillance operations.
- Excellent protection and a large network of servers
- Nice and pleasing application
- No logs
If you have never used VPNs before, then CyberGhost is an excellent choice. Their system makes use of easy to use and easy to install software and combines it with a user-friendly interface. They aim to make your VPN experience simple and enjoyable.
With a 45-day money-back guarantee, you can try CyberGhost without committing for up to one month, to make sure they are the right VPN for you.
- Very user-friendly
- High quality for a low price
- Torrents and Netflix possible
By comparison to other countries, the United Kingdom puts very few restrictions on the online content its citizens can access and, until recently, took little action to police their online activities.
However, with introducing the IP Act, in reaction to an increased number of terrorist attacks, the UK government’s ability to conduct online surveillance, collect, and keep user’s data has grown.
This has led to concern amongst civil liberties groups about how collected data is kept and used, and the ramifications of the government being able to collect data on individuals with no apparent justification. It was repealed, thanks to the EU stepping in, but if you still want to make sure you’re not under surveillance, a VPN will rid you of any worry.
Below, we answered some frequently asked questions about UK’s censorship efforts, like what they’re focused on, why, and how to circumvent the government’s internet regulations.
For the most part, the United Kingdom censors illegal or potentially harmful content, like terrorist propaganda or child pornography. Access to torrent sites is also restricted, even if torrenting in and of itself is not illegal. The reasoning seems sound for all of these actions. The government just wants to protect the population.
However, the UK also runs massive surveillance operations, which exist to keep tabs on its population. Read more in our United Kingdom internet censorship article.
The UK censors the internet through content takedowns, site bans, and most importantly – surveillance mandated by the IP act. It’s not an extremely complex censorship system, which is why UK citizens can keep their privacy secure with a VPN. If you’re wondering what VPN to use, ExpressVPN is a good choice for UK citizens, because it gives unrestricted access to servers all across the globe, extra features for streaming, and reliable anonymity.
The best way to circumvent internet censorship in any country is by using a Virtual Private Network. A VPN routes your traffic through servers anywhere on the globe, which changes your IP and maintains your online anonymity. On top, using a VPN also means gaining access to regionally blocked content, like shows on your favorite streaming services.