Porn blocking: what the big four ISPs actually did

How Britain's big four ISPs implemented adult content blocks

2015 may be the year David Cameron threatened to crack down on encrypted services such as WhatsApp, but the government has been declaring war on internet freedom for years. However, Cameron’s gung-ho attitude to online regulation has been responsible for implementing a sensible and successful policy to protect children against illegal and inappropriate online content.

In 2013, the government declared that Britain’s four biggest internet service providers (ISPs) would have to implement default blocks on adult content by the end of the year. Only BT, Sky and TalkTalk managed to hit the deadline, with Virgin Media introducing it in February 2014. Now, in 2015, Sky has gone even further by rolling out blocks to the five million of its customers who had not previously opted out, meaning that all websites containing unsuitable material are now locked.

What the government promised in 2013

Porn Blocking: What Westminster and the Government did

After introducing stricter controls on images of simulated rape and monitoring child-abuse search terms on Google and Bing, prime minister David Cameron turned his attention to blocking legal porn and adult content online.

The 2013 online child-protection initiative meant new broadband customers were shown an opt-out screen during setup that asked if they wanted filters switched on. The “yes” option was ticked by default, meaning those who barrelled through setup missed their opportunity to decide. Depending on the ISP, it wasn’t just porn that was blocked, but also other adult topics like gambling or violence.

What the ISPs committed to doing

Virgin Media

For new customers, Virgin Media provided an option for parental controls with the “yes” option pre-selected. For existing customers, the same message was displayed when they next used the internet, but the “yes” option wasn’t selected by default. Neither new or existing customers could skip the dialog box without confirming their option.

Sky

Sky followed suit with a pre-ticked option for content filters, but avoided using the term “default on”.

Sky said: “The filters will be pre-ticked and supported by customer controls that are simple and easy to use. Combined with a large-scale customer awareness campaign, we will make sure all our customers have the tools and information they need to protect their children online.”

In line with Cameron’s proposals, Sky also prompted its existing customers to decide whether they wanted the filters on or not. Customers had to prove their identity by providing their username and password if they wanted to switch off filters.

Sky recently claimed that its active internet-filtering system Broadband Shield had been switched on in over 70% of the homes that had not previously decided to opt in or out of the service. But, as Expert Reviews pointed out, this doesn’t mean these customers have parental controls enabled; Broadband Shield also provides anti-malware and phishing protection features.

TalkTalk

Despite having offered a network-level filter two years before the government ruling, TalkTalk was forced to tweak its filter. PC Pro previously revealed that the Huawei-powered filter could be easily circumvented, but, as part of the government initiative, its opt-in service HomeSafe was turned on as default for new customers.

BT

BT set its parental controls to “on” for new customers, meaning those who didn’t want filtering had to actively opt out. BT also provided an option for its customers to choose the level of filtering: “strict”, “moderate”, or “light”.

At the time, BT said: “The government has recently been checking the details of what ISPs do in this area and we’ve had some constructive talks.”

Image: Hernán Piñera - Flickr

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