Those parental-control filters? As few as 4% are signing up

ISPs report as few as 4% of new customers are signing up for government-mandated parental control filters

Nicole Kobie
22 Jul 2014

Broadband customers are overwhelmingly choosing not to use parental-control systems foisted on ISPs by the government - with take-up in the single digits for three of the four major broadband providers.

Last year, the government pushed ISPs to roll out network-level filters, forcing new customers to make an "active" decision about whether or not they want to use them.

An Ofcom report has revealed that the vast majority of new customers are not opting for the filters.

Only 5% of new BT customers signed up, 8% opted in for Sky and 4% for Virgin Media. TalkTalk rolled out a parental-control system two years before the government required it and has had much better take-up of its offering, with 36% of customers signing up for it.

Ofcom noted that the figures represented take-up only at the time of account activation, and said it's possible more customers turned on the filters afterwards.

Indeed, Sky said it had more take-up from existing customers, who aren't yet forced to make a decision on using the filters, than from new ones, who must make a choice. However, it didn't specify how many more signed up.

Ofcom said about 40% of British homes would likely have children in them, but noted that customer demographics varied by ISP. BT said about 20-25% of its customer base has children "of a relevant age".

Ofcom added that previous research showed about 42% of British homes with children already had parental controls of some sort before the rollout. Indeed, BT noted that about 9% of its customers - which it said works out to 40% of its customers with young children - use a device-based filter rather than the network-level filter.

BT added that the network-level filter was new, and believes that with further awareness take-up will increase from the current 5%.

Virgin Media pointed out filters are just one way it helps parents to keep children safe online, pointing out that its numbers may be low because the systems are so new. We've asked for comment from the other ISPs, but have yet to hear back.

We've also asked for comment from MP Claire Perry, who led the efforts to get ISPs to offer the filters, but her office said she had no response as she no longer acts as advisor to the PM on the issue.

Unavoidable choice

The low take-up is despite all new customers being forced to say whether they want the filters or not during account setup.

While BT, Sky and TalkTalk are showing all their new customers the "unavoidable choice" on setting up filters, Virgin Media managed to show the message to only 35%.

Virgin pinned the blame on its engineers. "The majority of new Virgin Media installations involve an engineer visit," the report said. "Virgin Media believes that, in many cases, the engineer runs the broadband activation process and bypasses or ignores the filtering choice. It has recognised that this is a failure in the process and indicated it is taking steps to address this gap."

The ISP said it would be "dramatically streamlining" the process so engineers stop avoiding it, and has shown additional prompts for the service to its customers, with the vast majority of users signing up for its Web Safe controls after activating their broadband.

But do they work?

Ofcom's report describes the systems used by the ISPs, but the regulator disappointingly didn't bother to test the effectiveness of the filters - something we at PC Pro have done on multiple occasions.

Ofcom admitted that filters are easily circumvented, but suggests it requires a "dedicated and technically competent user, supported by a range of advice available online". Our research suggests some of the filters can be dodged by using basic proxy services, including Google Images or Google Translate - and yes, PC Pro has been blamed by one ISP for spreading information about how to get around filters.

The report suggests the ISPs have "taken some steps to limit the extend of circumvention" but acknowledged that a VPN would bypass all the filters.

We've asked the Department for Media, Culture and Sport if it will test the filters efficacy, but have yet to hear back.

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