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World+dog: Network level filters block LEGIT sex ed sites. Ofcom: Meh

Why ineffectual blockers will be affectionately licked by watchdog

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Analysis Inevitably, as network-level filters are switched on by Britain's biggest telcos, reports are suggesting that the systems are wrongly blocking sex education websites.

BSkyB, BT and TalkTalk have each said publicly and repeatedly that the technology is not perfect and relies on interaction from parents who want to protect their kids from the perceived evils to be found online.

Mums and dads around the country are expected to inform ISPs when a mishap occurs: for example, when a website has been wrongly categorised and added to a blacklist.

BT, which introduced its network-level filter just last week, said: "Parents need the knowledge and the tools to help them keep their children safe online."

Similarly, the Internet Service Providers' Association secretary general Nicholas Lansman told us:

Filtering systems are not perfect but can lead to misclassification, which is one of the issues that has been consistently raised in the past. Most filtering solutions and ISPs have a way of reporting and remedying this, and over time this will only improve.

Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, has spent much of 2013 trying to score some political currency in a move to appeal to Middle England voters, ahead of the next General Election.

This time last year it was a different story. The PM was instead describing default-on filters as a "crude system" for protecting kids from accessing adult material on the internet.

By July 2013, Cameron threatened the country's biggest telcos that he would bring in regulatory measures if the companies failed to take responsibility for what, in effect, some see as a censorship machine that attempts to hide, with very mixed results, perfectly legitimate content - such as porn - from the prying eyes of youngsters.

TalkTalk blazed a trail for network-level filtering way back in 2011. BSkyB, BT and (soon) Virgin Media have now flicked the switch on similar systems.

"I am ... asking Ofcom, the industry regulator, to oversee this work, to judge how well the ISPs are doing and to report back regularly. If they find that we’re not protecting children effectively, I will not hesitate to take further action," the PM said during his NSPCC speech on 22 July this year.

But for those wondering how high Cameron's regulatory threat level actually is, some context about Ofcom's role might prove fruitful.

Here's what the watchdog is tasked with handling:

It's been asked to cobble together three reports on internet safety measures. The first, expected to be published in January, will look at parental control benchmarks mostly based on previous research.

The second and perhaps most important report will examine, in the words of an Ofcom spokesman, "ISPs' commitment to the introduction of network-level filters".

The final publication from the regulator will return to look again at parental control benchmarks once the blocking tech is fully bedded in to test its effectiveness late in 2014.

But readers might wonder what role Ofcom might play in looking at a system that isn't perfect for policing the internet in the way that some politicos and parents might foolishly have expected it to.

Specifically, on over-blocking, The Register was told: "We're not involved in policy-making in this area". The Ofcom spokesman added that the government had only asked it to deal with "very defined things" on the issue of filtering.

A source close to the situation told El Reg that Ofcom wasn't all that enthusiastic about regulation, in part, because of the sensitivity of the subject.

All of which leaves us wondering if we were right all along: this is less censorship of the interwebs as many have raged, but more the case of Cameron glad-handing Daily Mail readers in an effort to be seen to be doing the right thing.

The industry is cautiously optimistic that it's so-called Active Choice solution will be enough to convince Whitehall not to meddle with the broadband market on this spiky topic. It helps, of course, that the system favoured by the ISPs is so ineffectual by either over-blocking some content, or slipping through the odd boob.

As we recently noted, there's arguably an interesting side-effect to such filters. BT, for example, has told us that it uses its system to block access to sites promoting proxies and anonymisers. Such a strategy might mean the telecoms giant will face fewer days in court over copyright wrangles come 2014. ®

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