Online pornography blocked by default - censorship or sensible?

News by SC Staff

Sky Broadband is effectively requiring users to opt in to pornography - a move that many parents may welcome, but which civil libertarians among others do not.

Sky Broadband, the UK's second biggest broadband provider, is to block access to pornography as its default service for its 5.3 million broadband customers. Users wanting to retain access would need to opt in by switching off Sky's Broadband shield. 

Lyssa McGowan, brand director for communications products at Sky, in a blog post earlier this week, commented: “From January, we'll be emailing our customers who haven't chosen to activate or disable Sky Broadband Shield explaining its benefits and giving them the opportunity to make a decision one way or the other. Customers can activate Sky Broadband Shield, adjust or decline it at any time.” 

The aim is to prevent children having access to pornography, accidentally or deliberately, by adopting what McGowan says is a “User and family-friendly approach to online safety.”  She adds that, “Customers can easily choose and change their settings in MySky depending on the level of protection they need for their home.  Once Sky Broadband Shield is active, users cannot access a filtered site unless they choose to log in and alter their settings. However they can browse away from the filtering page to visit freely any site suitable for the 13 age rating, without any interruptions.”

Critics of the move, such as Richard King, of the Open Rights Group say that default censorship is wrong and unfair to Sky's customers; blogging on the ORG site he says: “Web-filters should be opt-in only. It's fine to offer them but it's wrong to force them on people.”

In an email to journalists, David Emm, principal security researcher, at Kaspersky Lab commented:  “The use of technology to filter pornography is not new. Most ISPs have offered controls to new customers to limit or prevent access to pornography since 2013, following pressure from the government to do so – Sky included.  Moreover, many internet security products also provide this.  What is new is ‘retro-enabling' such controls for existing customers, unless customers specifically opt out.”

He adds: “The move from Sky to block pornographic material by default will certainly help to shield children from the dangers of the Internet, although imposing them by default is a bold move. Today, it's easier than ever for children to stumble across inappropriate material, so making tools available to shield them from this content is very important. However, while filtering inappropriate content may be the most obvious aspect of the problem, it's by no means the only aspect of children's online safety.

Ed Macnair, CEO of CensorNet, wrote to SC to comment: “While I applaud Sky for taking some positive action to protect children from accessing inappropriate content online, it's too blunt an instrument and I fully expect there to be a backlash from customers. I dread to think how you will be viewed if you switch the filter off – a deviant or, even worse, a pervert! This kind of blanket ban by ISP's is simply not enough to protect children online. Parents need to take responsibility and choose what they are allowing their children to access, as well as ensuring specialist web filtering tools are installed on all devices – not just the home PC.”

King agrees: “We suspect resources on sexual health and sexual orientation for instance are blocked in error more often than other types of site. If you are not the account holder, and you can't get to a site you need, your only recourse would be to discuss it with the person controlling the account. That could be a parent, partner, landlord, room-mate, fellow student, etc.” Overzealous filtering categories have included beauty products, social networking etc, and when dealing with pornography, would an adult at their parent's house ask for access?

As King notes: “When you buy a mobile phone, your network assumes you are a child, and filters the web accordingly. Now landline ISPs are doing the same.”

Emm warns of parental complacency and adds: “It's important to remember that technology can't replace parenting. It's possible for such filters to get it wrong – letting through undesirable content or blocking legitimate content by mistake. Filters alone cannot protect them; education continues to be the most important defence a parent has against online threats.”

King agrees, saying: “Filters are not a parenting panacea and do not substitute for responsible supervision of children online.”  He suggests that Sky Broadband may be reacting to low uptake. 

Only 21 percent of parents use parental controls provided by broadband companies according to an Ofcom report. And a quarter of the parents believe their children could bypass the filters. Critics have warned that filtering is indeed easy to circumvent (proxy servers, VPN etc.) and according to ISP Review, sometimes getting around the blocking is as simple as enabling Turbo Mode in the Opera website browser or merely visiting a proxy redirection website.  

Take-up of filtering services reported in the Ofcom study was 36 percent for TalkTalk (HomeSafe), eight percent for Sky, five percent for  BT and four percent for Virgin Media (Web Safe).

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