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BT and Virgin Media Cite Political and Legal Concerns of Internet Censorship

Friday, September 28th, 2012 (1:40 pm) - Score 2,529

A successful Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the UK government’s Department for Education (DfE) has revealed that broadband ISPs BT and Virgin Media have raised a number of political, technical and legal concerns with proposals to toughen censorship of adult websites and related internet content via new Parental Controls.

Last year four of the UK’s biggest broadband ISPs (BT, Virgin Media, Sky Broadband and TalkTalk) agreed to help protect children online (here) by launching a new Code of Practice that would provide customers (e.g. parents) with an “enforced” option to block adult web content at the point of purchase (Active Choice). But some politicians want even tougher measures.

The new FoI request, which was made by a campaigner for communications rights, P.John, called upon the DfE to disclose several responses to the recent Parental Internet Controls Consultation that closed earlier this month.

This consultation proposed three potential options for handling the censorship of websites by UK internet providers, which included Claire Perry’s (Conservative MP) highly controversial demand for ISPs to introduce an automatic adult content block. Suffice to say that ISPs appear to be less than pleased with all the recent ministerial “uncertainty” surrounding Active Choice’s future and have aired a number of concerns.

Extract from BT’s Response:

Much of the current debate has focused on adult content that is legal, although not suitable for children. It is not clear from the questions who would decide on which content/sites get blocked by default. If BT, or any other ISP, was asked to block adult content without customer consent, there are questions about how any ISP might decide what sites came under this definition. Indeed what is the definition of adult content – is it just pornographic material ( the main campaign focus), or does it include violence, gambling and alcohol sites? It has been suggested that a system similar to film classification could be used to identify sites to block, but while this is workable for films the internet contains a great deal more content and it is increasing on an hourly basis. So finding a way of reliably categorising the sites could be challenging.

We are also concerned about being challenged in the courts were we to block by default any legal sites. There is a vociferous community which campaigns for freedom on the internet and for them, a cardinal principle is that ISPs should not interfere with their communications without consent. There are also questions about how default blocking might be viewed in terms of net neutrality or being anti-competitive. Ofcom and the European Commission have recently been pushing for an open internet where traffic is not blocked or managed, and default blocking would appear to be contrary to those principles.

It is also worth considering the danger that default blocking could lead to a false sense of security as no technical solution available or envisaged can be guaranteed a 100% success rate in blocking material deemed undesirable. This was one of the main concerns of the Bailey Review.”

BT raises a number of interesting points, not least with the issue of website categorisation. Some definitions could potentially be stretched to cover social networking sites (e.g. Facebook or Twitter) or possibly even online multiplayer games and their related communities. Clothing stores that sell underwear, legitimate sexual / medical education content and similar sites could also be hit.

Sadly though the consultation and ISP responses still haven’t touched on the need for an appeals system to remove sites that have been incorrectly blocked, which might help to tackle some of the aforementioned legal concerns. Certainly several studies have now shown that a lot of sites do get mistakenly caught up in related filtering systems (example).

Extract from Virgin Media’s Response:

The recent uncertainty surrounding Ministerial support for ‘active choice’ has been unhelpful as regards enabling businesses to plan for the long term delivery of solutions for new and existing customers. Despite this, Virgin Media has continued with planned investments in an ‘active choice’ solution for new customers alone, and is considering how to reach out to the existing broadband subscriber base.”

Virgin Media has understood ‘active choice’ not to be a brand, but a tool by which to dramatically increase the visibility of, and engagement with, software controls by subscribers, alongside more and clearer information to parents from all stakeholders. If that is not the case, further direction from Government is required to set the expectations of industry appropriately. Indeed, Virgin Media hopes that, at the culmination of this consultation process, the Department of Education will be in a position to give a clear, long-term view of the steps that industry should take to deliver an appropriate level of protection for children online.”

On top of all this we should not forget that many free internet filtering services already exist and no system is infallible. The recent blocks against The Pirate Bay and Newzbin have shown that they’re also largely ineffective and incredibly easy to circumvent.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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5 Responses
  1. Avatar captain.cretin says:

    What started with the banning of child porn sites will end with the politicians banning EVERYTHING they dont want us to read, including criticisms, corruption and scandals relating to themselves – GREAT FIREWALL OF CHINA anyone???

  2. Avatar Jerome Haden says:

    Those wanting default censorship of legal pornography under the pretext of ‘keeping children safe’ are extremely misguided and present a danger to the future of the net. In order to have that kind of filter you have to watch everything in order to determine what is going to be allowed or not. I don’t think they appreciate the level of control (repression/censorship) that is inherent in their proposals.

    Who is going to decide what is ‘allowed’ or not? Ultimately it would have to be the government wouldn’t it? Once they have that kind of power it will just be too tempting to begin banning ‘offensive’ material, which will expand to include political repression. You only have to look back to the recent Olympics to see how a little bit of extra power was used by authority to crackdown on protests. They were arresting people just because they planned to protest and ‘spoil the event’.

    To allow such censorship of legal material would put us in league with other repressive regimes in the world. Perhaps that is what the supporters of this censorship want?

    By all means give people the tools and advice necessary to decide on what they expose their families to, but don’t destroy the net.

    1. Avatar DTMark says:

      Absolutely. This is getting very dangerous now.

      There is software available that concerned parents can install onto their computers to restrict access either in terms of the hours of use or the site types visited.

      Sadly, there isn’t the same thing for when the children go out into the “real world” which protects them. That’s why parents supervise them, isn’t it..

      Which is one of the reasons why it’s so important to have as many different infrastructural methods of access to the internet so that a global block would be made more difficult for the Authorities, and that’s not that way we’re going.

    2. Avatar Timeless says:

      another example would be the royal wedding, dont quote me but lm pretty sure someone was arrested for having paint in a shed nearby because supposedly he was going to use it for other means just because he joked about it.. we live in an age where thought can be a crime.

      regardless back on topic.. these days ppl seem to think its someone elses job to protect their children when parents are too lazy to keep an eye on their childrens internet activity, if they want to filter their kids net activity they shouldnt let them have computers in their bedrooms and buy the software themselves rather than expect the tax payer to fund a system that wont work.

  3. Avatar Nick j says:

    Everyone is missing the point here! Or in the case of ISP’s dodging the point. What Claire Perry is campaigning for is the right of parents like me to opt out of porn coming into my house, not require adults who want freedom to have to opt in to an unfiltered connection. Instead ISP’s have chosen to interpret the government proposals as let’s chuck some free software at concerned parents and hopefully the campaigners will go away. Technically if the ISP adopted network level filtering tools to allow me to opt out of porn it would be the same as me installing the software. Unfortunately software deployed by users will never be anywhere near as effective as the ISP doing it which is why the campaigning continues. How hard is it for the anti censorship people to get this? Again, I want the ISP to help me protect my kids on all devices and this can be done without affecting other users rights to free access.

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