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UPDATE Do 7 out of 10 Sky Broadband Users Really Censor Adult Sites?

Tuesday, Jul 14th, 2015 (8:56 am) - Score 1,355

A new report claims that around 7 out of 10 Sky Broadband customers have enabled the ISPs network-level filtering (Parental Controls), which was enforcedly introduced last year by all of the largest broadband ISPs to help block “adult content” from young eyes. Sadly it doesn’t always work as intended.

The figure, which is being highlighted by the Daily Mail today, is up sharply from last year when Sky Broadband reported an uptake of around 8% for their related Sky Broadband Shield service.

The Government requires that all of big ISPs offer such filtering, which puts the Internet provider in charge of blocking access to adult websites, but only if you agree not to disable it. In other words, new customers are given an “enforced choice” and the feature comes pre-ticked as “Yes” (enabled) unless you opt-out by unticking the box.

Since then ISPs have also introduced a new system that would apply the same “enforced choice” to existing customers. At first some of the providers tried a voluntary email notice to existing customers, but Sky noted that only 5% of their related subscribers elected to enable the service after the email notice had been received.

Following that most of the big providers have since taken a more aggressive approach. For example, BT prompts existing customers by hijacking their web browsing session to display the “enforced choice” and customers cannot continue browsing unless they make a decision.

Sky took a different approach by enabling the filtering automatically for all those who have not already made a choice about whether or not to enable it. Customers will then have seen a special web page when trying to view a blocked site, which would have given them the option to login and disable the filter (ignoring this would mean the filter stays switched on).

We have asked Sky to clarify how many customers had the filtering enabled after ignoring their primary notice and are awaiting a response.

Will Gardner, ChildNet International, said:

This opt-out approach is a good recommendation for parents, because it forces them to make a choice. It’s not a solution to the problem but it does reduce the chances of accidental exposure to content that can be incredibly harmful to children.”

Ofcom is due to provide a more detailed breakdown of the latest update figures for related tools in the not too distant future, which should give us a much more constructive overview of how these more aggressive tactics have impacted uptake of network-level filtering (censorship) services.

In the meantime the figures for one year ago (here), which were too young to reflect the full impact of such systems, stated that the take-up of related filtering services by new customers to whom it was offered were 36% for TalkTalk (HomeSafe has been running for years), 8% for (Sky Broadband Shield), 5% for BT (NetProtect) and just 4.3% for Virgin Media (Web Safe).

The Alternative Perspective

Naturally not everybody is happy with the way this new system has been introduced. For example, the network-level filters don’t just restrict access to porn and will give users a choice of other categories that can be blocked. On the one hand this includes websites that make sense (e.g. those that promote gambling, self-harm or drugs), but on the other we also see categories for social networking (Facebook), beauty products, video games and sexual education etc.

On top of that there have been plenty of problems with mis-categorisation, such as how choosing to block “self-harm” sites has in the past resulted is some websites being blocked that actually act as support networks to prevent people from self-harming. Similarly various educational and medical pages have also been blocked through mis-categorisation, with ISPs perhaps forgetting that biology and human anatomy is a part of the national curriculum.

The other problem is that network-level filtering is incredibly easy to circumvent, even though Ofcom incorrectly claims that only a “dedicated and technically competent user” can do so. In reality circumventing a block can be as simple as enabling Turbo mode in Opera’s website browser or by visiting an anonymous web proxy site, both of which are less challenging than needing to input a password when switching on your computer.

Ultimately if a curious child chooses to go actively seeking out such content then there’s sadly not much that an ISP can do to stop it, which is why network-level filtering should never be seen as a substitute for good parenting.

UPDATE 12:55pm

The official press release for Sky is now out and surprise.. the Daily Mail’s piece appears to have misinterpreted the wording, which actually states that Sky’s “internet filtering and safety tool is now active in over 70% of the homes in the roll-out to customers who had not previously made a choice” (here).

In fairness Sky’s language isn’t especially useful unless we have a baseline to compare with, which would need to reference those who had already made a choice against those who had not. The press release hints that this figure could be in the “millions“, but it seems unlikely to reflect the 7 out of 10 (all customers) that was reported by the Daily Mail.

Lyssa McGowan, Director of Sky Broadband, said:

As more customers choose Sky for better quality and value, we are committed to ensuring everyone can choose to enjoy the internet in a safe environment. We’re proud of Sky Broadband Shield and the approach we took to ensure that millions more people are safer online.”

We continue to await clarity from Sky.

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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