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TalkTalk serves up website blocking to users

First we stalk, then you walk the limited interwebs walk

TalkTalk just became the first major UK internet service provider to implement network-level anti-malware blockers on its service.

The system has arrived later than originally planned, after the company quietly begun following its customers around the web and scanning what they looked at last summer as part of TalkTalk's development of the new anti-malware system it has dubbed "HomeSafe".

It had expected to launch the system late last year, but in July 2010 Information Commissioner Christopher Graham chided TalkTalk for following its 4.2 million customers around the web without telling them.

He said at the time that he was disappointed that the firm kept the trials of its anti-malware system quiet at a meeting with TalkTalk, where he cited the exposure of BT's controversial and similarly unpublicised trials of Phorm's targeted advertising technology.

Last month the Crown Prosecution Service confirmed that it would not be prosecuting anyone in BT's secret trials of Phorm's web-monitoring system.

Now that the blocking features and parental controls of the system have been activated by TalkTalk, the ISP's customers are being asked if they want to opt in at no extra cost.

The system was provided by Chinese vendor Huawei and works by harvesting every URL visited by every TalkTalk customer. It then follows them to each web page and scans for threats, creating a master blacklist and a whitelist of dangerous and safe URLs.

HomeSafe comes with three features, said TalkTalk. Virus Alerts blocks webpages infected with any kind of malware. KidsSafe parental controls allows the account-holder to block porn, violence, and other content they don't want access to via their connection. There's also a Homework Time option that allows parents/carers to block sites such as Facebook.

TalkTalk adopted a paternalistic line about that final feature, by describing the dominant social network as a source "of distraction for schoolchildren from their homework."

The account-holder can switch between settings at any time, said TalkTalk.

As for the company's run-in with the ICO, TalkTalk provided the commissioner with documents to support its public claims that the technology and the trials complied with privacy laws.

It is unclear if TalkTalk's quiet trials will be the last of their kind in the UK. But the recent planned changes to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act could put an end to all that. The Home Office has declared that companies placing notice of monitoring into fine-print terms and conditions would not be taking strong enough measures to count as "consent" from customers to such a seemingly stealth-stalking mechanism. ®

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