Friday, January 23, 2015

UK ISPs line up to block pornography

UK broadband Internet provider Sky is to block adult content by default, unless users opt out.

The decision comes nearly two years after Prime Minister David Cameron put pressure on Internet service providers [ISPs] to make online filtering mandatory [BBC / BBC Q&A].

ISPs initially rejected the proposal and there was widespread criticism in the media. But with TalkTalk also reported to go the same route as Sky, the blocking of pornography and other adult content could become the norm.


Sky announced it was to phase in the filtering in the coming months in a blog posted on its website  

Meanwhile TalkTalk said it too was following suit and apply a block to all users' accounts, unless they have already opted out of such blocks. Customers will then have to ask TalkTalk to allow pornographic websites to be visited through their Internet connection.

BT is also contacting its customers to ask them whether they want to have the tool introduced. Virgin also gives parents the option to turn on the free tools but keeps them off by default.

The filter enabled by TalkTalk's HomeSafe product can stop Internet connections from being used to access violent content and gambling websites, as well as pornography.

Big Brother or Nanny State

Some Internet users have criticised the move saying it was another move towards a more draconian state. "Britain is getting more like North Korea every day. What are they going to block next?" one comment read on the Daily Mail website

Others have also condemned the move as a danger to freedom of expression [Belfast Telegraph].

While there is undoubtedly some concerns over censorship, there is a change in mood not only from the government but also the Internet industry. In fact as early as 2013 Dido Harding, TalkTalk's chief executive, said that she supported such automatic blocks [Independent].

Some filtering will be tiered. For example Sky's Broadband Shield offers various levels of filtering from PG, 13, 18, customizable settings or none. With the new system the default will be set to the 13-year-old age rating which will block sites that deal with dating, file-sharing, violence, drugs, "criminal skills," suicide and self-harm, and pornography, and many more types of objectionable content.

It is not entirely clear how the ISP deals with enquiries made on search engines especially those that involve image searches [BBC].

However for a sense of how such filtering might work one need only look to China where ISPs as well as Internet companies are required to block, filter or censor objectionable content.

Internet blocking

China's Golden Shield Project - often referred to as the Great Fire Wall - is used to great effect in stopping access to content authorities deem sensitive. Indeed the GFW attempts to stop the spread of rumours, stifling protests and dissent. However it also plays a part in stemming the flow of online pornography.

Searching for the Chinese term Sèqíng [色情] or pornography on Baidu, China's top search engine, and there will be few salacious pictures shown in image searches. There may also be a message displayed stating that "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not displayed".

Searches for inappropriate search terms may even result in 404 error pages or the Internet connection being reset, in other words cut off for a period of time.

Using foreign search engines will often be of little help since they may often be blocked whilst others such as Bing comply to local Chinese law.

Nonetheless filtering out specific content is an imprecise science. The Open Rights Group's Blocked project [] has shown that filters block all kinds of websites, including some that provide useful advice to children and young people says Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group. "Customers need to understand the implications of filters before deciding whether or not they want them."

Even in China some inappropriate images still get through whilst legitimate sites get blocked. And in the UK too reports suggest that legitimate sites are also being blocked by porn filters [Russia Today], whilst some fail to block unsavoury material [PCPro].

Andrew Ferguson, founder of broadband news site ThinkBroadband, said that parents should not rely solely on filters to protect their children from online nasties. "As ever the filters don't block all unsavoury material so are not a replacement for parenting and the embarrassing questions all parents have to face," he said.

Free choice

At present Internet users have a choice whether or not they want the censored Internet or the fully accessible one. But it may perhaps only be a matter of time before pornography and other 'objectionable content' becomes mandatory.

Certainly if China had its way much of the world would be applying similar Internet restrictions that it does on its own citizens [Does China Hope to Remap the Internet in its Own Image?]. In fact some have already speculated that China may have influenced the implementation of porn filtering being rolled out in the UK [AnimalNewYork].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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