Sky Broadband Shield review
Sky has this week become the second major British ISP to launch a network-level content filter, with the Sky Broadband Shield. As a Sky customer and parent of two young girls, I was keen to find out whether it was any better than TalkTalk’s pioneering, but largely ineffective, HomeSafe. So, performing the same tests that we used in our recent round-up of parental control software, I set about Sky’s filters.
On the face of it, the Sky Broadband Shield could barely be easier to set up. You login at Sky.com, click on the Broadband Shield section and choose from three levels of protection: PG, 13 or 18. Being a network-level service, the filters apply to any device connected to the home network – there’s no way to include or exclude specific laptops or smartphones, for instance.
Sky warns that the filters may take a few minutes to take effect. What it doesn’t warn you is that you have to clear your browser’s cache for the filters to work properly. An hour after switching on the filters on my laptop, I was still able to access Facebook, while the social-networking site was blocked when I tried to access it from a cleaned browser on my Windows 8 tablet. Non tech-savvy parents could easily be caught out.
Sky also blocked all of the proxy sites we tested against, but as with most network-level services, it’s not difficult to find a way around its filters
As with all the parental controls suites we examined in our recent Labs, I tested the Sky Broadband Shield against the same 145 sites, using its strongest possible setting, in this case PG. Its blocking performance was strong: it blocked all of the 74 pornography sites we threw at it, and was reasonably strict in most of the other categories too. It did let through four race-hate sites, and a few pro-anorexia and pro-suicide sites, but these are arguably the hardest to guard against. It also let through all of bookmakers’ sites, although gambling isn’t listed among the categories Sky blocks — perhaps because Sky has its own betting site?
Sky also blocked all of the proxy sites we tested against, but as with most network-level services, it’s not difficult to find a way around its filters. A Google Image search for “xxx”, “porn” or other salacious words delivers a barrage of highly explicit images. Whilst most of the sites lurking behind the large thumbnail image results are blocked, it only took us a few minutes of clicking to find sites that have slipped through the net. Likewise, a site called TheFrisky.com hosting an article called “The Truth About Blowjobs” is hardly what we’d call suitable for a PG rating.
On the plus side, Sky didn’t record any false positives on sites delivering information about sex education or suicide prevention, and the Sky settings allow you to permit or block individual URLs or whole categories. While our request to let Facebook through was granted almost immediately, our attempt to block the www.pcpro.co.uk URL was less successful, with Sky merely ripping out the style sheet and some of the images on our test tablet, and letting the site load fully on other devices.
Sky also does a reasonable job of guarding on mobile devices. The Twitter and Facebook clients on my iPhone failed to update once I’d blocked the social-networking category, and mobile web browsers blocked access to the sites, too. Sky puts a nice clear warning in the browser, stating that the website has been blocked and under which category it’s been blocked, with clickable options to login and amend your settings and report an incorrect categorisation.
Overall, then, a mixed performance from the Sky Broadband Shield. It blocked the vast majority of unsavoury sites we threw at it, but when finding hardcore pornographic images is as easy as typing a few choice terms into Google or Bing, what does that matter? At the very least, parents would need to impose extra controls to make sure children couldn’t switch off safe search options in the browser.
Sky’s Broadband Shield, alongside other measures, might offer some protection, but the Prime Minister’s daft promise that children will be “safe” after parents switch on these government-sought filters has never looked more foolish.
Sky’s blocking scores
Hate sites: 50%
Tasteless humour: 40%
False Positives: 0% (Less is better)