Ofcom Reports On Successful Implementation Of ‘Porn Filters’

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

Next, 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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Max Smolaks

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

View Comments

  • The only 'Successful' part of the headline is the low uptake!

    The very fact there is no easy way to check that your site (innocent or otherwise) has been banned makes this scheme totally unacceptable.

    The scheme reads more like the ravings of the Chinese communist party - What's wrong with teaching kids right from wrong?

  • I don't need the government to parent my children. It's not their job.
    I am adult enough to control my children.
    The government uses this as an excuse to gain control over things they are should never be entitled to in a free society.

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