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Leaked Letter to UK ISPs Reveal Political Meddling in Adult Internet Filters

Monday, Jul 15th, 2013 (10:34 am) - Score 1,200

Furious ISPs have leaked the full text of a controversial new letter from the government, which at the last minute appears to call on them to introduce a number of controversial changes for improving their approach to the censorship of adult websites. It also reveals a worrying level of political meddling, possibly to satisfy the Daily Mail.

At present all of the United Kingdom’s largest broadband ISPs (i.e. BT, Sky Broadband, TalkTalk and Virgin Media) have been forced to offer customers a choice of whether or not to enable network-level Internet filtering (Parental Controls) for adult websites and services, which is better known as Active Choice+.

The move is designed to help protect children online but the wide gulf between how politicians explain it and the way that ISPs envisage it will actually work has caused no end of confusion. The politicians involved naturally want the system to appear stricter than it is. Last month ISPreview.co.uk moved to clarify this confusion by explaining precisely what was planned (here), which isn’t quite as bad as some feared.

But the Department for Education has got involved again and it’s new letter both calls upon ISPs to fund an “awareness campaign for parents“, without giving them any useful information, and to change how they explain the Active Choice+ system by using some potentially misleading language (political spin).

The Leaked Letter (BBC Extract)

4. Using the phrase “default-on” instead of “active-choice +”

The prime minister believes that there is much more that we can all do to improve how we communicate the current position on parental internet controls and that there is a need for a simplified message to reassure parents and the public more generally. Without changing what you will be offering (ie active-choice +), the prime minister would like to be able to refer to your solutions [as] “default-on” as people will have to make a choice not to have the filters (by unticking the box).

Can you consider how to include this language (or similar) in the screens that begin the set-up process? For example, “this connection includes family-friendly filters as default [or as standard] – if you do not want to install this protection please un-tick the box” (obviously not intended to be drafting). Would you be able to commit to including “default-on” or similar language both in the set-up screen and public messaging?.

It should be noted that a default-on system is generally one that is enabled for everybody and without the customer having to take any action, which is not quite how Active Choice+ works. Instead the new system would NOT enable filtering by default, although this is somewhat of a moot point since it would force everybody to make the choice about whether it’s “on” or “off”.

It’s understood that ISPs will be meeting with the government’s outspoken advocate of mass internet censorship, Claire Perry MP, at lunchtime today to discuss the letter. The government remains keen to get everything ready by the end of 2013 because that would make for some good headlines, especially if they can engineer those headlines to read favourably. It did at least send “apologies” to the ISPs “for the very tight deadline“.

UPDATE 12:57pm

The letter also calls for ISPs to confirm whether they can commit to “implementing browser intercept“, which is the system that would effectively jump into your face and ask you to make a decision about whether or not the filters should be turned on or off.

It claims that TalkTalk are already trialling such a system but so far the ISP has only contacted customers individually through their accounts. We do know that Virgin Media seem to be looking in this direction but it’s a technically tricky thing to get right.

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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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