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Telcos react coldly to renewed UK.gov smut-censoring push

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Telcos have once again reacted frigidly to suggestions that Prime Minister David Cameron will force ISPs to proactively offer web-blocking measures to subscribers signing up for their services.

It comes after a Daily Mail report on Saturday, citing Downing Street sources, suggested that the PM was about to call on a tightening up of parental controls online to supposedly help prevent children from accessing pornography sites and other material deemed by the government as inappropriate for youngsters.

The endgame is apparently for broadband providers to put filters in place for anyone signing up to the services who first say "Yes" when asked if they have kids. Those individuals would then reportedly be guided through a number of questions about restricting web access for their children.

In October, BT, Virgin Media, BSkyB and TalkTalk all agreed to do their bit to try and keep online smut, suicide sites and other supposedly dodgy content away from the prying eyes of young people by inking a code of practice partnership that provides customers who are parents with an "Active Choice" to block such material.

But at present TalkTalk is the only one of the Big Four telcos in the UK to impose network-level filtering on their subscribers. It's been suggested that Cameron wants this system to be the default one used by all large ISPs.

Under Number 10's apparent new measures, existing punters will also be required to be prompted by the broadband providers to install web-blocking technology. Apparently, Downing Street will tell ISPs that they have to impose such controls or else face legislation.

The PM has been warning ISPs for some time to be more robust with their plans to provide better tools to help parents censor sexualised content online, to prevent the government from stepping in with its own regulation measures.

Telcos, in the main, have scoffed at Cameron's proposals and feel that the "Active Choice" code of practice goes far enough to allay those concerns from Downing Street.

The Register asked BT, BSkyB and Virgin Media to comment on the DM report.

A Sky spokesman simply said that: "Our position hasn't changed." He then pointed us to a blog post from September this year explaining the company's current position.

Sky does filter content on its Wi-Fi hotspots service to prevent people browsing porn in coffee shops, for example. But it doesn't do the same in people's homes, instead those customers are given the opportunity of opting out of parental controls.

Virgin Media is similarly sticking to letting its subscribers decide what material they think should be accessed online in their own homes. A spokesman gave us this statement:

Virgin Media takes the protection of families very seriously and we're already committed to ensuring every customer has a clear, unavoidable choice as to whether to use the high-quality filtering tools we make available for free.

Our customers have the power to automatically prevent access to a comprehensive range of websites, add their own to the blocked list, and even limit when social networking sites can be accessed.

We're giving parents greater control and the choice they've told us they want, so we'll continue working closely with government, industry, charities, academics and law enforcement agencies to help inform families and protect children online.

BT hadn't responded to our request for comment at time of writing, but it is broadly in step with the viewpoints of Sky and Virgin Media.

Meanwhile, TalkTalk issued an opportunistic comment from its CEO Dido Harding on Saturday, who said:

TalkTalk was the first ISP to start doing this [network-level filtering] and we are still the only ISP that offers customers a solution that protects every device, where all the customer has to do is make a yes or no decision about filtering inappropriate content, without worrying about downloading software or setting up different controls on different machines.

We think [it] is the role of an ISP to provide parents with simple and effective tools which is why we developed HomeSafe and as such we are really pleased that the government is favouring this approach of making it easier for parents to keep their children safe online.

However, the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) urged caution about the report. The broadband lobby group's Secretary General Nick Lansman told El Reg:

We are awaiting the government response to this summer's consultation on content filtering, where we were clear in our support for active choice, and are looking for much-needed clarity from government in this area.

ISPA ultimately believes parents are the best people to decide on what content is appropriate for their children and it is industry's job to equip parents with the tools to help them make these choices.

ISPs currently do this through easy-to-use active-choice filtering, on either the device or network level, and through providing advice and assistance to parents. It is important to stress that online safety also includes manufacturers, retailers and others, and should not be viewed as an ISP-only issue.

It's understood that the government will announce its plans later this month - which come after a farcical public consultation process about web-filtering that led ironically to the Department of Education breaching the Data Protection Act. ®

Bootnote

While Cameron's crew can easily be slated for their lack of understanding when it comes to shaping internet policy, the Tories are sadly in good company with the opposition when it comes to such issues.

Labour MP Helen Goodman, who is the shadow culture secretary, recently displayed her woefully inadequate knowledge of installing software on a computer, which makes her brain go "bzzzz", apparently.

As spotted by blogger Terence Eden, Goodman admitted to being "particularly stupid" about web-filtering - or as she called it: "the filter thingy" - in an independent report about online child safety from Tory MP Claire Perry earlier this year. It makes for a fun, albeit depressing, read.

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