July 23, 2013 | Jim Killock

ISPs need to explain their filtering set up systems

ISPs have a lot of questions to answer. While they may feel that no legislation is better than letting parliament loose on the issue of content restriction, the turf on which they have been fighting with government is extremely narrow, but important.

Claire Perry cc-by Policy ExchangeWe are asking ISPs to explain how their systems will work, and to what extent David Cameron has represented or misrepresented their intentions. Do ISPs support or oppose active choice?

It’s worth explaining how the government got into this argument, and what precisely they are arguing about. It seems to us they are arguing over the precise ways in which “splash screens” are likely to operate, and whether or not they can be claimed as offering a “default” or a “active choice” to enable blocking.

The campaign for blocking began with Mary Whitehouses former group Media Watch and her erstwhile allies the christian Safer Media campaign calling for ‘default blocking’ of pornography, picked up by the Daily Mail, and then being backed by Claire Perry MP and a group of MPs who recommended this in a report sponsored by Safer Media and Premier Christian Radio. (Incidentally, the Perry report was not a 'parliamentary' report – it has no formal standing, unlike the last government's Byron Review, for instance, which opposed default filters.)

Claire Perry later became central to the government’s child safety work.

The government – or Claire Perry - argued for default network blocking, on the grounds that some parents would be too lazy to set filters up.

However, ISPs countered with the idea of 'active choice' - a question that must be answered asking if you want parental filtering enabled. The idea was that people would unavoidably make a choice, eliminating any need for defaults.

The government ran a public consultation, and decided that 'active choice' was best, but that filters, if being set up, could include preticked options.

The main reasons for this were that the Department for Education accepted that 'defaults' could mean children receiving less protection than appropriate, and creating more collateral blocking damage than necessary.

ISPs The major ISPs conceded that they would provide network level filtering. Despite advice that device filtering may well be more effective at blocking content (you can control it more closely) ISPs accepted that network filters may be 'easier' - easier for the government to know everyone has taken a choice over them.

The Daily Mail cried foul. People making a choice wasn't good enough: filters must be enabled by default, despite the evidence that this could harm children. Cameron responded, saying defaults would be there.

This is the ground on which this policy has been debated. ISPs have repeatedly ask that customers make an 'active choice' while the Prime Minister and Claire Perry insist that they be able to claim victory to the Daily Mail, by making the system in some way default to filtering.

All the harms come with defaults. If people understand what filtering is, then only those who want it will enable it. Those who enable it, will understand what they are or are not preventing, so can tailor it to their child's needs.

Let's hope David Cameron has been, shall we say, overstating things: the ISPs TalkTalk, BT, Sky and Virgin need to state clearly what is happening.

Edit note: this article refers to the major ISPs, TalkTalk, BT, Sky and Virgin, rather than ISPs in general and has been edited to reflect that


We've launched a petition calling for David Cameron to drop his plans for default Internet filtering. Sign the petition here: https://www.openrightsgroup.org/campaigns/cameron-stop-sleepwalking


Comments (5)

  1. James Blessing:
    Jul 23, 2013 at 01:18 PM

    A number of ISPs are already making it clear - http://revk.www.me.uk/2013/07/active-choice.html - they are only tiny but there are many like them that think the government are wrong on this issue.

  2. Jim Killock:
    Jul 23, 2013 at 01:40 PM

    Hi James, that’s true and I’ve edited the post as smaller ISPs have always been outside of this policy drive, at least by government at the moment.

  3. mam_bach:
    Jul 23, 2013 at 02:08 PM

    And if I don't have children, do I have to have a child-friendly net? Or can I continue to watch Predator or Game of Thrones

  4. Graham Anderson:
    Jul 23, 2013 at 02:12 PM

    Also, who will pay for the parallel network infrastructures? Filtering will require some kind of transparent proxying alongside unfiltered/less filtered routes to the Internet.

    TalkTalk is the only major ISP to currently offer network level parental controls - all the others appear to offer free downloads of McAfee, Trend, etc for PC-centric filtering. Estimates of the cost of TalkTalk's network filter are in the region of £20million - who will pay for this investment at the other ISPs? Will consumers pay more for slower broadband (filtering will impact speed)? Will taxpayers have to subsidise an ineffective product?

  5. The Stigler:
    Jul 28, 2013 at 10:36 PM

    Does BT include companies like PlusNet that are owned by BT or is just BT?