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

Content filtering

Virgin, BT and Sky to follow TalkTalk's lead and introduce opt-in network filtering

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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