Web-filters should be opt-in only. It's fine to offer them but it's wrong to force them on people.
Sky Broadband have announced they will force web-filters on all customers, starting this week, unless the account-holder opts out. They say:
"When trying to visit a website deemed unsuitable for children under the age of 13 during the day, customers will see a page reminding them to make a choice about filtering. At this point, they can accept the current setting, change their protection levels or simply turn Sky Broadband Shield off.
"It's better for people to make their own choice, but until they do, we believe this process to be the safest one. Meanwhile we can ensure that they're protected from phishing, malware and sites unsuitable for young children."
This approach will increase harm for websites and web surfers, and there is still little evidence of the benefit to children, so why are they doing it?
All ISPs promised David Cameron they would make all customers choose whether to use filters or not. Sky is not offering a choice however - they are imposing filtering unless customers opt out - an approach that the government rejected after running their own consultation. In addition, most households do not contain children so, Sky's default-on approach seems over-reaching.
Could Sky Broadband be seeking to increase adoption of web filters through "nudge" tactics in order to avoid Government criticism for a lack of uptake? Public interest in activating filters has been low since the Government started pressuring ISPs to introduce them in summer 2013. Ofcom said in July 2014 that just 8% of Sky Broadband subscribers had switched them on. The same report showed a 34% adoption-rate for competitor TalkTalk, who promote filters aggressively, and have made them the default option for new subscribers for a long time. Nudge tactics rely on the principle that most people don't bother changing defaults.
If Sky's agenda were neutral, they would block all web-access for an account until the account-holder had stated their preference about filters: on or off. Instead they intend to block only those sites "deemed unsuitable for under 13s."
Many people have become accustomed to finding the occasional blocked site on our mobiles. That's because default-on blocking of adult content has been the norm there for many years (ORG reported on this in 2011). When you buy a mobile phone, your network assumes you are a child, and filters the web accordingly. Now landline ISPs are doing the same.
If people are inconvenienced by Sky Broadband filters only as much as they are on their mobiles, many won't bother to change the defaults, as it may feel like a lot of hassle if your surfing habits fall foul of overblocking infrequently. Meanwhile others might suffer disproportionately more overblocking depending on the information they seek. We suspect resources on sexual health and sexual orientation for instance are blocked in error more often than other types of site. If you are not the account holder, and you can't get to a site you need, your only recourse would be to discuss it with the person controlling the account. That could be a parent, partner, landlord, room-mate, fellow student, etc.
Sky Broadband may claim increased popularity for filters when in reality the figures would be inflated artificially. People who don't want or need them might be too apathetic, or too reluctant to be on a list of "people who requested the bad sites", to switch them off.
Sky Broadband are asking their customers to choose but they are not giving them the information they need to make an informed choice. Their explanations about filters mention none of their disadvantages or limitations. Far from being perfect, web filters block sites nobody could object to, while failing to block others that are unquestionably adult in nature. If Sky Broadband are confused about this they could consult the Department of Dirty for advice.
Filters are not a parenting panacea and do not substitute for responsible supervision of children online. At ORG we believe parents need help understanding the web, advice on how to talk to their children about online risks, and support to be able to supervise their children effectively. Some may choose filtering as part of their solution - but the rest of us shouldn't be forced to have it just in case.
We also need more transparency about how filters work, what they block, and means of redress for website owners when things go wrong. That's why we built our checking tool at blocked.org.uk - though we would prefer ISPs to take responsibility for this themselves.