Ofcom Reports On Successful Implementation Of ‘Porn Filters’

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Internet censorship, filtering © Brian A Jackson, Shutterstock 2014

Just 4 percent of new Virgin Media customers have adopted the tools designed to protect children online

All four of the UK’s largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have succeeded in offering an ‘opt-out’ adult content filter to new customers, according to Ofcom.

The measure aimed at protecting children from harmful websites was agreed between major ISPs and the government last year. BT, Sky and TalkTalk implemented the necessary tools by the December 2013 deadline while Virgin Media only got there in February.

The uptake of the filters among new customers stands at four percent for Virgin Media, five percent for BT, eight percent for Sky and 36 percent for TalkTalk, which has been offering a similar HomeSafe service as far back as May 2011.

The unavoidable choice

Parental controls (c) Cartoonresource, Shutterstock 2013Next, the ISPs will begin contacting all of their existing customers to present them with the same ‘opt-out’ choice before the end of the year.

The Open Rights Group claims ISPs in the UK now block one in five websites, including political and feminist blogs, but the Ofcom report didn’t evaluate the effectiveness of the filters.

The ‘adult content’ label includes resources dedicated to suicide and self-harm, pornography, file sharing, crime, drugs and violence. The filters were designed to apply to all HTML-based Internet content, on any device that is connected to the fixed broadband network at home.

Ofcom refers to the mechanism through which ISPs offer the filter as the “unavoidable choice” – intended to ensure that a new broadband service cannot be activated without the subscriber making an explicit decision.

New customers are simply presented by a pre-ticked form which describes the filtering service when they are setting up a new connection. They can later switch this service off by contacting the ISP.

Cameron’s original announcement was welcomed by child protection agencies, but criticised by freedom of speech campaigners, after filters were found to prevent access to the websites of charities and educational organisations.

In January, responding to the complaints of ‘over-blocking’, the government introduced a ‘whitelist’ maintained by a special working group within the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which was designed to stop automatic filters from blocking legitimate, age-appropriate websites.

Content filtering

According to the report, all four ISPs have commissioned third parties to perform the categorisation of Internet content and services – with the list of contractors including Nominum, Symantec and Huawei. Alongside the common classifications, some ISPs have also introduced supplementary categories in their filtering services, covering areas such as alcohol and tobacco, media streaming, hacking, dating, games and fashion.

All participating ISPshave provided tools for customers and site owners to report potential mis-categorisation. Ofcom notes that lists of such websites are not currently shared among ISPs – so in the case of mis-categorisation, website owners would have to approach each ISP individually.

The watchdog also points out that none of the ISPs offered a dedicated route or mechanism to allow site providers to directly check the current categorisation of their site against the ISP’s filter.

This is the second of the three Ofcom reports on Internet filters and online safety. The final report will be published early in 2015 and will review Ofcom’s Media Literacy research from 2014 on parental strategies for protection of children online.

Last week, the UK government launched the optional Friendly Wi-Fi licensing scheme – an effort to make harmful and pornographic content inaccessible through public Wi-Fi networks.

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