Why is TalkTalk's year-old porn filter suddenly big news?

14 May 2012

If you've been reading the newspaper headlines yesterday and today, you could be forgiven for thinking that TalkTalk has suddenly taken strident measures to block online pornography from children's sensitive eyes.

The Sunday Times dramatically describes the ISP as having "broken ranks" with its fellow ISPs by offering "all its 4m subscribers a blanket opt-out for pornography sites" and forcing all existing users -- rather than only new customers -- to say whether or not they want the service (I'll leave it to you whether that's opting in or opting out). "TalkTalk is offering parents protection for every computer, games console or e-reader accessing the internet via the family broadband connection."

Following the Times' lead, Channel 4 proclaims: "TalkTalk now plans to question all of its 4.2m customers, forcing them to choose whether to use settings that would block information on computers, mobile phones, games consoles and e-readers."

The Metro crows that TalkTalk is "becoming the first provider to offer the service at server level", while The Mirror reveals that TalkTalk has "introduced a filter called HomeSafe". The Sun also seems to think HomeSafe is new technology, saying "TalkTalk’s move will put pressure on other internet providers to offer the same service".

Everyone's welcome to an opinion -- and we certainly have ours -- but the stumbling blind coverage of the Sunday Times story shows just how little anyone seems to know about the technology in question

Those of you who are TalkTalk customers or who follow broadband -- hey, everyone needs a hobby -- may be wondering if you've stepped back in time to last year, when TalkTalk first started offering the HomeSafe filter. It's not a new service; it's been around for a full year. Guess that "pressure" hasn't had much of an effect on rival ISPs, eh, Sun writers?

TalkTalk's plans to ask all existing customers whether they want the filter on or off is slightly fresher, but it's hardly news. The ISP revealed the plans a month ago: "TalkTalk has long welcomed Parliamentary and Government interest in this area and is demonstrating its commitment by announcing that it will begin testing new ways of prompting existing customers to make a choice about blocking pornography and other categories of internet content." That's from a press release dated 17 April, but in case anyone missed that, TalkTalk repeated the news in a blog post on 4 May, and referenced it in another post last week, tellingly titled "Happy Birthday HomeSafe".

Why, then, are so many writing as though TalkTalk's announced something new today? Why is a month-old press release suddenly worth a front page splash? TalkTalk's own press office admitted nothing was new in the Sunday Times' story, but said that the paper wanted something to kick off its campaign on the topic. In other words, the Sunday Times is so keen on keeping people talking about the issue that it's willing to pretend something is new news when it's not.

Everyone's welcome to an opinion -- and we certainly have ours -- but the stumbling blind coverage of the Sunday Times story shows just how little anyone seems to know about the technology in question; a quick glance at the TalkTalk blog would have made it clear to the Mirror, Sun and Metro that this filter isn't new. While PC Pro readers know enough to notice the flaws in newspaper claims, imagine how confusing these mixed messages are to less tech-savvy people -- the very people these automated systems are designed to help out.

To be fair, few people covered the 17 April announcement (ourselves included), possibly down to timing: it's also -- rather intriguingly -- the day a report into online pornography was released by MP Claire Perry, reigniting the debate by again calling for ISPs to block  such content at the network level, and force customers to say whether or not they want such a filter. Fancy that.

Maybe that's why everyone missed TalkTalk's announcement the first time around: everyone was too busy demanding the Government block porn/worrying the Government would block porn, that no-one noticed TalkTalk had already done what everyone wanted/feared.

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