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Old enough to surf on your phone?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:30 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011

Tried surfing on your mobile phone lately? If so, you may have found that quite suddenly you can't visit certain websites until you've reassured your network that you are over 18.

O2 age verification notice

Having seen this story about the issue, I thought I would try myself to visit one of the sites mentioned. It is called Jalopnik, and is all about cars - not a particularly racy subject, you might think.

But sure enough, when I visited it from my phone on O2's 3G network, up popped a message warning me that I needed to be over 18 to see it. I now need to contact my account administrator, whoever that is.

Next stop was the O2 blog which explains:

"Over the last few months we've been gradually migrating our customer base onto a new age verification platform. We've completed, which will ensure all our Pay & Go and Pay Monthly customers are protected by the age verification system."

O2 - which is not the only network doing this - says the policy is designed to give reassurance to parents whose children are now using smartphones. Fine, but surely a contract customer like me has to be over 18 so why am I having my surfing censored?

The network explains that some parents are now buying monthly contracts for their children, so it's not safe to assume that phones are being used by adults.

But who decides which sites get blocked, and why does a site about cars end up ringing alarm bells? Apparently the networks have set up something called the Independent Mobile Classification Body (PDF) to categorise websites - and its work is not yet perfect. Sites which have been wrongly categorised will be "whitelisted" once mistakes are pointed out.

Getting your age verified by your network is a bit of a faff -  you have to pay a pound via your credit card, though you then get £2.50 credited to your mobile account. It's all causing a deal of grumbling from the network's customers.

"We do apologise for the inconvenience but it's a simple process aimed at protecting children," an O2 spokeswoman.  

This whole policy has wider implications for the debate about policing the web, and protecting children. Social networks like Facebook have said age verification is a really difficult thing to do - and that means they can't know whether users are under the age at which they are permitted to join.

But now the mobile networks have shown that there is at least a way to verify parental permission via a credit card, pressure may grow on other sites to do more to check that people are who they say they are.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's hard to verify that someone's over thirteen, which is what Facebook is trying to do. It's much easier to verify that someone's over eighteen, which is what O2 are trying to do. It's also a lot easier to do if you've got a national network of stores that people can walk into to verify their age (which is how I dealt with this with Vodafone, ages ago).

    This all stems from the usual Daily Mail furore a few years ago when 'content' on mobile phones was generally in operators walled gardens, and the networks agreed to limit access to 'adult' material. Now that they're mainly conduits to the internet they're rather stuck with their mistakes and can't easily take the same approach that other ISPs do of just delivering the internet and letting you deal with it yourself.

  • Comment number 2.

    Does this stop dodgy images on Texts? Twitter? or even e-mail?

    These are the more common ways da kids are getting their cyber bullying thrills.

  • Comment number 3.

    What about those who do not or wish to own a credit card? How can I validate my age? Furthermore how do you intend to validate a child's age? Would they be required to send in some form of ID into the website. Nice idea but ill thought out

  • Comment number 4.

    I had this a few months ago when trying to access and went in to my local O2 shop; all I said was "take a look at me, I'm clearly over 18" and they took the bar off (without proving age or ID).

    Ironically, if I use wifi it's a different set of regulations and so I - or anyone under 18 with a smartphone - can access all manner of filth.

  • Comment number 5.

    I sympathise, having been faced with the same issue of opt-out rather than opt-in when I switched to the Orange network.
    Doesn't seem to do anything useful. Shops and discussion forums are sporadically blocked, so 3/4 of what I would surf for while out was instantly unusable.
    Worse; the lack of consistant information about diabling it; the online documentation suggests going in-store; the staff know nothing about it, and suggest going online.

  • Comment number 6.

    It's a poor implementation of a scheme they shouldn't have to implement (and probably don't want to). But a bit more thought on handling change, and communicating with customers in good time (and especially with their high street staff) could have made a huge difference.

    More detail on where they went astray here:

  • Comment number 7.

    It's a good thing kids can't get hold of prepay "credit" cards pretty easily, isn't it?

    Oh, wait, they can.

  • Comment number 8.

    Generally a good step in the right direction although the same principle really needs to be applied to all internet connections.

    - All open wifi networks should block age-limited content by law.
    - All consumers with internet connections should need to make a legal declaration about whether under 18s have access and if so all age related content should have a mandatory access restriction (password?) at the network level.

    Unless we want to completely abandon the whole concept of 'adult content' and allow completely open access, the control MUST be MANDATORY and not based on the adhoc, ineffectual system of relying on technically incompentent parents to install application layer restrictions (Net Nanny, Cyber Patrol etc.).

    Some activists won't like it but the only way forward is to imbed the restrictions at the NETWORK level. However, the key is to do so in a sensible way with perhaps a multi-level approach.

    From a personal point of view I certainly wouldn't object to it being made a criminal offence to allow and under-18 to access inappropriate content via an internet connection I was responsible for. Nor would I object to having to go through an appropriate process with any ISP to obtain a completely unrestricted internet connection.

    For those who don't think there is a problem, the current nonsensical situation is best summed up by this cartoon -

  • Comment number 9.

    I can understand this for PAYG phones, but since you have to be 18 to take out a phone contract, surely this makes the content blocks kind of silly for contract customers?

    Orange already know I am over 18 because I have a contract with them. So why should I need to tell them again?

  • Comment number 10.

    @9 WelshBluebird1

    They have to take into account contract phones that parents get for their children.

    All the mobile companies know is who pays the bill, not who uses the phone.

  • Comment number 11.

    I have a number of problems with this:
    1) There was no advance warning, surely at they could have at least sent a text message?
    2) To do this they must be monitoring my Internet conversation something that, if they did without a court order to my telephone conversation, would be illegal. Why are they allowed to do it in this instance, just because the medium is different.
    3) Such an unannounced intervention to their customers' Internet browsing means that the next time a criminal redirects them from the page they requested to a nice O2 branded website that asks them for their credit card details, they are much more likely to be compliant. Not the best way for an ISP to behave I would have thought.

  • Comment number 12.

    Silly, ineffective way of protecting kids. First of all, I don't want my mobile operator deciding what anyone should be able to see. You either provide the service, or you don't - you certainly don't go around telling people what they can see and can't.

    The parents are the legal guardians of the children, and as such it is up to them to monitor any form of parental controls, much like on computers.

    Which is another point - does anyone really think that blocking websites on smartphones stops anyone going on the websites? Kids with smartphones will in large proportions also have access to computers.

    I have no interest in a company telling me how to be a parent. Sure, you can put age restrictions on porn for example, but then what do you do about profanity? Are O2 going to tell people what they can read on websites, too?

    Nonsense. Stick to providing the services at a reasonable cost, rather than incurring more overheads which affect my bill for things no one has ever asked for in any sort of large number - and those who did moan about having more protection for their kids should step up and do their job as a parent, instead of shirking their duties.

  • Comment number 13.

    @William Palmer

    For those situations why not just get the network to ask if the phone will be used by an under 18? Easy.
    Much more simple, and meants those of us over 18 don't have to be annoyed by this kind of nannying.

    Also of note is that a lot of the sites blocked are not 18+ sites. One of the sites blocked on Orange is the student room, a forum where an awful lot of people are under 18 and are trying to get help with their studies or university applications. Why should someone be banned from a site like that because they aren't 18?

  • Comment number 14.

    I'm surprised it's taken O2 this long, Vodafone have been filtering their traffic for years. To solve the problem I use VPN, a Virtual Private Network. I set my home PC up as a host and configure my phone not to access any sites on the public internet without going through my home PC first. All communications between my phone and my home PC are encrypted, meaning that my phone network can't even see what I'm looking at, let alone try to block it. I actively encourage everyone with a smartphone to learn how to do this, or befriend someone who already can.

  • Comment number 15.

    If you want to let O2 know your feelings on this, you can tell them here

  • Comment number 16.

    #14. Ash wrote:

    "To solve the problem I use VPN, a Virtual Private Network."

    And I suppose you always go through a proxy server to obscure your net activity too!

    I had to spend quit a time just waiting for just one page to download in town the night before last, and as it was the map to a pub, the several minutes it took wasted valuable drinking time and it was perishingly cold too! Like most mobile technology the manufacturers and service providers over claim and we put up with it!!!

  • Comment number 17.

    If the O2 age verification works does this mean someone under 18 who goes to a web proxy site would be able to circumvent the block? If yes then surely that makes a mockery of this from the outset.

  • Comment number 18.

    "Sites which have been wrongly categorised will be "whitelisted" once mistakes are pointed out.". So how are sites wrongly categorised in the first place? Is it based on fleshtones in images (such analyses only work on caucasian flesh colours!)? How about words? Will the young people of Scunthorpe and the junior supporters of Arsenal be unable to find out about their town or team? And why is it the responsibility of mobile networks to do this? Do they not know that all children have parents or carers who have the responsibility to check on their children? I think I'm a much more suitable parent than a mobile phone company.

  • Comment number 19.

    @ The_Ex_Engineer,

    What you propose is nothing short of wholesale censorship, an appalling restriction of free speech, freedom of expression and free access to information.

    Far more appropriate that parents put a little effort into monitoring their children's internet use - insist that they surf in a family room, instead of letting them sit up until all hours on their laptop in their bedroom.

  • Comment number 20.

    Kiteman (@19), I know exactly what I'm proposing but for some reason you must have been reading something completely different from what I wrote.

    I'm certainly not proposing censorship. I'm just proposing we as a society make firm a decision about whether the concept of 'adult content' actually exists and if so, apply comparable restrictions online as currently applied in the real world.

    Applying your logic would suggest that the UK has 'wholesale censorship and an appalling restriction of free speech' because by law it requires cinemas to refuse to admit kids to 18-rated films.

    If there is no such thing as adult content then we should abolish all film and video game restrictions, abolish the 'watershed' and the other age restrictions we put on content. Logically we would also need to abolish things like the bans on adults 'grooming' children online. If 'adult content' doesn't exist then there couldn't possibly be anything wrong in someone under 18 reading something that was suitable for an adult to read.

    However if we do decide in principle that children should not have free and unfettered access to certain (violent or sexual) content or conversations then we need both sensible and comprehensive measures in place. That means measures at the network level not at the consumer level.

    If we think it perfectly appropriate for businesses like cinemas to control access to content based on age, then it is no different to require ISP and phone companies put in place similar checks.

    Currently it is an utter nonsense that I would be arrested as a sex offender if I showed, even indirectly, an adult DVD or magazine to a young teenager but people would seem quite happy to provide the same young teenager with an internet connection where they can access the same content themselves.

    We need to get away from the crazy situation of people supporting sensible, historic restrictions on every part of our real life but then throwing a hissy fit when it is suggested we do something similar online.

  • Comment number 21.

    PS read

    Now tell me that it is actually sensible that we leave everything relating to child protection to parents when some can't even put enough effort in to teach their kids their own name or how to dress themselves.

  • Comment number 22.

    I was recently surprised to find out my 3G dongle (on the same account as my smart phone, which is unblocked) was adult-blocked. The reason that surprised me the most was that I'd been accessing distinctly adult sites with no hint of a restriction but the filter triggered when I tried to access the website for a well-known computer security tool for work.

    The nice customer service person on the phone explained that this particular blocking was "to protect children" as they might use this tool for hacking and removed the block without question. It therefore seems that my provider's filter doesn't work (I was happily viewing adult sites undeterred) and there may be other agendas at work deciding that non-adult sites are unsuitable for children.

    Overall, this smells of fail to me.

  • Comment number 23.

    The nanny state continues. Do I really care what other children are viewing. That is THEIR parents responsibility. And no doubt part of my contract cost is now paying for all this. I don't have a credit card either. Just glad I'm out of the UK at the moment. Unfortunately, living in a country at the moment, where blocking of sites occurs on a daily basis makes all people, very net savvy. This is so easily circumvented. Good try O2 but even a child could get round this.

  • Comment number 24.

    I'd advise reading the Bango Privacy Policy very carefully before imparting any information to them.
    If you comply you will be surrendering Personal information (PI) which is identifiable to an individual. For the Bango system, this may include;
    * Mobile telephone number
    * Email address (if given)
    * Type of content searched for or purchased
    * Services or pages accessed
    * Credit card information
    According to the Privacy policy "We also collect cookies, browser header information, IP addresses, date and time of access."
    "Arbitrary data encoded into a URL or web beacon - URL query string and campaign parameters, product information, goods purchased, advertising campaigns clicked, web pages reached."
    "Bango User ID
    This is a unique identification number that we use in order to minimize the amount of PI we disclose to CPs. A Bango User ID on its own is not personally identifiable.
    It is created from cookies, browser header information, IP addresses and information supplied by Bango partners. It is also linked to your device (manufacturer and model), mobile network operator or mobile virtual network operator, current connection and operator’s country.
    We use it to accurately identify you in order to correctly process your payments and deliver you the best payment experience."
    About Bango
    Bango provides the technology that powers commerce for businesses targeting the growing market of internet enabled mobile phone users.
    Bango’s products collect payment from mobile users for on-line content and services, and provide accurate analytics for mobile marketing campaigns and sites.

    Why would you be happy with providing all this information to a marketing company?

  • Comment number 25.

    Why, when the age of consent is 16, do you have to be 18 for O2?

    You are technically an adult when you reach your 16th birthday. You can join the army, get married, have consensual sex by law ... and lots of other things.

  • Comment number 26.

    Hmmm... let's see if you geniuses can work it out....

    How exactly does your mobile phone company know what you're accessing on the internet? What is the only component of your smart phone that has anything at all to do with the mobile phone company?

    Smart phones can access the internet without that component actually inside the phone.

    Sure, you can't receive calls or texts while you're surfing if you take it out, but if you've some spare minutes and voicemail setup, and you're within range of a wi-fi network, what's stopping you?

  • Comment number 27.

    Plenty of teenagers can get access to their parents credit cards and place a £1 charge on them.

  • Comment number 28.

    I raised issue on their support forums and despite being 26 and walking into their store I still need to have ID.

    Apparently being able to answer your security question is enough proof that you are the customer so you can alter the terms of your contract but not proof you are over 18.

    Also since your giving your details to a marketer (Banjo) and O2 never actually refund your £1 (only give you £2.50 credit) I think some sort of money generation scam is going on.

    If O2 want to protect the children surely an opt-in option with an advertising campaign so parents are informed would be effective. The fact O2 have even applied this to corporate customers screams alternative motives. Also if you have a O2 contract and an O2 dongle contract you have to do this separately for both.

    My ISP is there to provide the internet to me, I don't need them to filter it, read the contents of my email, inject adverts or anything else that invades my privacy.

    I'm an O2 broadband customer and an O2 pay monthly one, I was willing to sign up for a 2 year contract for my next phone. Now I think I'll wait until its released and go with someone else. Since I'm moving might as well transfer my broadband as well.

  • Comment number 29.

    When did it become the norm for media outlets and IS providers to block content to save children from the horrors of the net?

    Surely the Parents are the ones who should be monitoring their children as to what they deem appropriate and not some faceless business giant.

    By all means they should implement ways in which adults can use, at their discretion, programs to help monitor and constrict what their child views, but the decision should ultimately rest with the Parents or Guardians.

  • Comment number 30.

    None of this affects me...

    For me, a phone should be able to make and receive calls and texts. job done.

    for browsing the internet, I use my PC. problem solved.

  • Comment number 31.

    If parents want to keep their kids safe, keep them off my Internet - it's not a daycare center. Alternatively, learn to chill.

  • Comment number 32.

    I'm sorry but how out of date is this?! I am with T-Mobile and I came across this issue with 'Content Lock' about FIVE years ago and told them exactly the points people have already mentioned.

    The contract can only be taken out by people 18+ so it is pointless in my view, besides so called filth is more of a problem on PC's in the home.

    Most people have wireless routers so can use their netbooks, PCs, tablets anywhere in the home without supervision from adults. In addition - how many people actively have 'Web Filtering' software like NetNanny actually setup?

    These content-lock features are really an annoyance to adults rather than children.

  • Comment number 33.

    The devices not the networks need to offer blocking functionality. Kids are quite capable of switching to WiFi and there are plenty of hotspots that don't offer filtering.

  • Comment number 34.

    I am 28 and do not own (and will not own) a Credit Card. How is it reasonable to use this as the sole method of age verification? Are those who do not believe in always borrowing the money they spend, rather than earning the money they spend, now second class citizens in the digital age?

    I also wonder how this will affect people of the Muslim faith (I am not one of the btw) who are restricted in which financial arrangements they are allowed to be involved in.

    These two points arise in addition to the fact that a Mobile Phone operator should -not- be a moral guardian in society. Who the hell do they think they are to restrict what access people have to sources of information. There are, for example, some pretty clearly 18+ articles and images on Wikipedia, is that to be filtered and restricted?

  • Comment number 35.

    I had the same problem with three network where i suddenly couldn't access my favourite mountain biking forum. when i phoned their customer services i was told that it was going to be an extra £5 a month if i wanted the 'adult' content filter switched off.

    Naturally i was rather annoyed at them deciding what i'm allowed and not allowed to see so i complained at their restriction of information and in return got the filter switched off and my download limit increased from 1gb a month to 3gb a month, for free. This made me think, if they are willing to increase download limits so easily, how extortionate must their charges be in the first place?

  • Comment number 36.

    IF the mobile companies imposed this blocking only on PAYG phones - and not ALL customers - they might attract more contract customers.

    As many have pointed out, a mobile contract can only be entered into by someone who is 18 years or older.

    The contract terms should include the provision that the contract customer is wholly responsible for the usage of any device so connected - so a parent taking out a contract and handing the phone to a teenager would be culpable.

    (If I can only do 'some' things on my handset, I may go back to a calls-and-text device and browse only via WiFi on a dedicated device.)

  • Comment number 37.


    Where did they get that name from?

    It sounds like it should be blocked by adult filters, suspected as a sort of X-rated version of "Whack-O!"!

  • Comment number 38.

    As a long-term customer of '3',I was flabergasted at the range of restrictions being imposed on my mobile internet service.
    Upon e-mailing and then phoning customer services,I too was informed that i would have to pay £5 per month on top of my so-called inlimited access,after further complaints they offered to give the first month free!
    At this point i poltely declined and advised them i would rather use a Tor to access the same (non-offensive)sites but still using their network,
    And would make full use of their advertised 'No-Limit' access as advertised by running the phone as a free internet hot spot for my family,

    By imposing restrictions the mobile network have....
    A.Educated myself and many others as to how to circumvent restrictions,
    B.Allowed more freedom of access for my whole family

  • Comment number 39.

    Do tell us Rory what BBC programs are barred. Where is the list of barred sites?

  • Comment number 40.

    RCJ seems not to have heard of something called a VPN. I just tried to access a site using my 3G dongle that I thought would be blocked and it was. So activate my VPN software and I can access the site.

    Problem solved.

  • Comment number 41.

    @Mo - prepay credit cards can be identified by their number.

  • Comment number 42.

    Age restrictions on the Internet are a total nightmare!

    My 3yr old likes to surf for Dinosaurs on You Tube. A lot of the content is great, but there is occasional dodgy stuff.

    I'd love a filter that filters out the dodgy stuff, but unfortunately it's impossible to police, who is to say what is dodgy and to what age group.

    Most people would react by blanket banning YouTube, which would be a waste as there is so much good child friendly content, it would be like banning TV because you can't be certain of the age of the viewer.

    Oh and The_Ex_Engineer

    Let's just blanket ban the Internet, that way we can be sure people aren't looking at stuff they shouldn't. I'm sure Libya and China would love that.

  • Comment number 43.

    Umm I think the problem with the ideas from some of the contributors is you'd end up making a criminal of those who are already struggling with technology.

    All of a sudden my 75 year old nan would be a criminal because she didn't confirm passwords. Technology is quite difficult enough, without nonsense layers of security which can't be enforced correctly.

    How many people managed to access to 18+ content while underage? Teenagers will do what teenagers will do, regradless of draconian internet measures making criminals of old ladies.

  • Comment number 44.

    I'm with Orange and spotted that parental controls were activated on my account when I was checking my bill on-line, was easy enough to turn off. Can't say I'd noticed it when I was browsing though. I also think that the providers are right to make it opt-out rather than opt-in since it's probably not something parents would immediately think of when buying a phone for their child.

  • Comment number 45.

    Do we believe that it is the job of big business to be responsible for the moral guidance of our children?
    Do we know for certain that the brains of our children are unaffected by the powerful radio waves emitted by such mobile telephone devices?
    Are we sure the service providers do this to protect children or simply for reasons of yet more commercial data gathering for profit and control?
    If you are happy with this, I would suggest your brain has already been damaged?
    This would also explain your willingness to push your parental responsibilities onto the shoulders of a large faceless corporation.
    God save us all!

  • Comment number 46.

    With computers in kids bedrooms its hard to police. But I don't see why you shouldn't try on the mobile phone platform which is hugely popular with children.

    Just the act of blocking it and making children have to work hard to attempt to see something seen as forbidden, makes it clear in the mind of the child that this content is different. Often that's enough for them to think about what they are looking at, and consider why its restricted to adults.

    Just like cigarettes, just restricting them to adults makes us consider why, and consider the health aspect. We then make a choice.

  • Comment number 47.

    If kids were taught properly about the dangers of the internet then this wouldn't be a problem. There were never any blocks on content when I first started using the internet. It was the parents responsibility to teach there kids what to do and not do online, the same way as we were taught about crossing the road safely.

    Putting blocks up only makes kids more determined to get through them, and where there's a will there's a way. What today's children need is a good education on the dangers of the internet not being wrapped in cotton wool and subject to ISP's and mobile internet providers blocks, which from what the article says won't work anyway if the kids get hold of one of there parents credit cards, particularly teenagers.

  • Comment number 48.

    @Kev I agree with your statement about YouTube. You could try turning on the "Saftety" feature, which in some cases should help filter out the "Dodgy content".

    I also am applaued at this, people are correct that parents do get contract phones for thier kids ..... however, its up to the bill payer to make sure that content is not blocked, now if its for kids, the only way they are going to learn is no by blocking the sites, but by helping them understand whats on the web, and what to avoid.

    My parents never blocked any website for me, I learnt what to avoid on the internet alone ..... does that make my parents bad? No.... my parents have other things to do besides monitor me on the internet.

    The rule is ...."What happens on the internet.... stays on the internet... unless its on Facebook".

  • Comment number 49.

    I find it hard to surf the net on my phone at all, age verification has nothing to do with it because I doubt I could even see the message.

    3G coverage has gone down the drain in the South Wales region. And why is this? The system used to work flawlessly but now it is a shambles, how can the system go from being amazing to be useless in the space of about one year?

    And why should I still be forced to pay all that money for a service that as far as I and many others are concerned, has been taken away from us?

    What exactly is destroying the 3G network?

  • Comment number 50.

    By all means censor the content. Lybia is setting a good example isn't it?

    Innapropriate content - yes but who decides and what is innapropriate content? Is Michelangelos david inappropriate ocntent? should children under 18 be banned from seeing Louvre? Or visit old Rome sites or ancient Greek palaces? I mean they have a lot of content that might be innapropriate for some.

    Is bashing the government innapropriate? Well it is to those who voted for it, so perhaps that should be banned/censodred as well, huh?

    Gadafi did it/does it so perhaps UK is to follow? Starting by teaching kids what they should see and think.

    Here they banned foreign gambling sites. To protect the children, but mostly because they didn't want to pay. Case for the EU corts now.

  • Comment number 51.

    Good article, another massive hole in the system sits with apps. I have one or 2 apps on my iPhone that Apple requires I be over 17 to use (no verification, just a tick box to confirm I'm 17)and all data to those apps slips under the filter.

    Since almost all my data access these days is through apps rather than the browser this filter is completely ineffective

  • Comment number 52.

    3 weeks ago I was about to launch a new website and was checking the server logs for errors. At the time only myself and two other people knew the address of the site. What I spotted in the logs really puzzled me at first - when my colleague accessed the site from his 3 iPhone all his activity was being shadowed by an IP address in the US. Every page my colleague viewed was also being viewed from what appeared to be a Windows user in California - in the same order and at the same time. Apart from my annoyance at the potential to mess up my visitor statistics (based on log file analysis) we were concerned my colleagues phone had been hacked. It turns out the IP in the US belongs to a company providing content filtering to the UK phone networks - something which seems bang out of order when you consider a users private browsing habits are being shared with private companies outside the EU and which are probably not subject to the same data protection laws we have here.

  • Comment number 53.

    @Peter, saying that an ISP is "tapping" your browsing by doing this is a poor comparison and frankly rubbish. It would be like trying to make a phone call without the phone company knowing the number you are connecting to, perhaps they should just guess?
    Same goes for Graphis and as such who's the genius?
    Having said this my child would circumvent this by simply using my phone, not the best of thought out implementations.

  • Comment number 54.

    Not even close to being "news" when other operators have been doing this for years, is it?

    Try harder.


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