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ISPs offer network-level porn filters to dodge "regulatory threats"

Content filtering

By Shona Ghosh

Posted on 24 May 2013 at 13:53

Sky, BT and Virgin Media will all offer network-level filters later this year.

After running a consultation into parental controls last year, the government last year confirmed it would not force ISPs to automatically block porn at the network level; the parties instead agreed to a "code of practice" to offer free adult-content filters to customers.

The consultation revealed that most people didn't want default network-level controls. The three ISPs are stopping just short of that, rolling out network-level blocks that aren't turned on by default, but will be offered on an opt-in basis to all customers.

"It’s about us all trying to do a little bit more, and hopefully we can avoid imposing the regulatory threats talked about earlier," said Sky’s head of policy, Adam Kinsley.

TalkTalk has offered a network-level filter for two years, but like the others it remains an opt-in system.

Sky confirmed it would introduce an opt-in, network-level filter "in the next few months". Kinsley declined to comment on specifics, but said the tool would use DNS lookup - not deep-packet inspection - to determine unsafe sites.

He told PC Pro that the company would not be storing its customers’ browsing data. As with TalkTalk’s HomeSafe, the tool will provide blanket filtering across any device – so tablets and phones as well as PCs – connected to the home network.

Still up to customers

Kinsley added that Sky had gone "as far as we can" in encouraging parents to implement filtering. He added that the firm was unwilling to force an opt-out system on customers, since that would mean making decisions about unsuitable content on their behalf.

"To have all these filters on by default in the home, you then get to the question of deciding, which filters? Is it nudity? Does that mean a torso?" he said.

Kinsley said Sky will outsource the decision as to which sites fall under the category of adult content to a third party, but wouldn’t say which firm. TalkTalk’s HomeSafe uses Symantec, a system which a PC Pro investigation had no trouble getting around. Kinsley admitted that Sky’s solution was unlikely to be perfect, but insisted flawed measures were better than none.

"We are all doing this. It’s not perfect, it won’t solve all the problems, it’s not 100% safe and people will get around it. But don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good," he said.

BT and Virgin revealed less detail about their plans, but confirmed network-level filtering before the end of the year. They didn’t state whether the systems would be opt-in.

"BT is moving to a solution by the end of the year, it will cover all devices in the home," said regulatory manager Anne McClaren. "We’re building that and looking at it now."

McClaren added that the new solutions might fill the "holes" in ISPs’ software-based blocks, which are limited to the PCs they're installed on rather than all devices connected to the network.

"It’s a progression. You put things in place and build on it and ask, where are the holes now?" said McClaren. "There are still milestones to achieve."

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User comments

But im guessing the same flaws will remain e.g. there wont be a way to override a blocked site.

By tech3475 on 24 May 2013

That does not make sense Mr Kinsley!

If you have a network level filter, whether opt-in or opt-out, the network provider is taking responsibility for categorizing content! You cannot evade that responsibility by farming it out to a secret third party! There must be a transparent procedure for people who believe their site has been inappropriately blocked. And there are going to be endless disputes about what *should* be blocked.

In my view the correct way is for blocking to be done by multiple third-party portal sites and for routers to have the ability to force traffic through a portal of the customer's choice. This way all different sensitivities can be accommodated by different commercial and voluntary sites who can take responsibility for their own decisions. For example, portals catering for very young children should operate on a white-list rather than a black-list.

By JohnAHind on 24 May 2013

It should be....

a lookup referral from the end-users router which can be turned on or off (much like the way DNS works).
I do not want the extra hops or latency that are created by filters.

By JmLing on 24 May 2013

so why can't 'parents' toughen up and learn to use their router?? My Netgear has options to block sites in various ways, it is not difficult--Is it time that people had to be 'trained' before they where allowed to sign up to an isp

By invalidscreenname on 25 May 2013

@invalidscreenname

Most parents are non-technical and with the best will in the world, they would be unable to learn to use their router.

There are plenty of people out there who struggle with basic arithmetic let alone IT hardware.

By tirons1 on 27 May 2013

Most parents are non-technical

Then don't have a computer.

By bet1001 on 28 May 2013

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