ISPs Defend New Porn Filtering Measures

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Virgin Media, BT, Sky and TalkTalk say their new child-protection measures will not affect existing customers

Virgin Media, BT, Sky and TalkTalk have discounted suggestions that their new child-protection measures will oblige users to “opt in” in order to view material deemed inappropriate for children.

The four ISPs said yesterday they they would begin offering customers an “active choice” at the point of purchase to block adult content. This has led to suggestions that a new “filtered feed” will be applied to everyone using Internet connections provided by the ISPs – including existing customers – requiring them to actively opt in to view this material.

However, the ISPs have clarified that existing customers will see “absolutely no difference” to their web content. The new measures brought in by the ISPs chiefly amount to a new voluntary code of practice that will include the principle that users should be asked whether they want to activate parental controls when they buy a new contract.

Code of practice

The measures were developed in collaboration with the government and “a range of stakeholders” in response to a report by the Christian charity Mother’s Union published in May.

“Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media are pleased to have developed and agreed a code of practice, including measures to ensure that customers are provided with an active choice as to whether to activate parental controls in the home,” the four ISPs said in a statement.

“The ISPs have committed to improve the way we communicate to customers enabling parents to make simple and well-informed choices about installing and activating parental controls and other measures to protect their children online. The four ISPs are working with parents groups and children’s charities on this important initiative and will continue to do so.”

Virgin Media, BT and Sky will offer the child protection features via PC-based software offered on the customer’s installation disk, while TalkTalk is offering network-based content filtering.

Digital rights organisation the Open Rights Group has questioned whether the measures will amount to encouraging users to get used to living with “layers of censorship”.

“Will adults be asked if they need parental controls, or if they want to switch adult content on?” said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, in a statement. “We will oppose anything designed to induce adults to live with ‘censorware’ which would inevitably deny them access to commentary, health and medical advice.”

False sense of security

Other industry observers warned users to be on their guard against falling into a false sense of security.

M86 Security, for instance, argued that children are often capable of bypassing protections.

“Many kids are savvy enough to use proxy servers to bypass URL blocking techniques that restrict their access to forums, chat rooms or other websites deemed inappropriate to their age group,” said Ed Rowley, senior product manager at M86 Security, in a statement. “We would strongly urge parents and teachers to continue to check which sites their children and students are visiting, even if they have implemented the parental controls offered by their ISPs.”

In March, ICANN approved the .xxx top-level domain (TLD), a decision criticised by conservative governments. Others argued the TLD would make it easier and more acceptable for websites to be censored.

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