Digital Privacy

ISPs need to explain their filtering systems

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: