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Government Moots Law Change to Keep UK ISP Internet Porn Filters

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015 (8:23 am) - Score 2,808
banned and forbidden uk internet censorship

The Government has confirmed that they’re considering the introduction of a “domestic law” that could prevent Europe’s new Net Neutrality rules from overriding their policy of requiring all of the United Kingdom’s major broadband ISPs to block adult Internet content.

At present Sky Broadband, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and BT all offer network-level filtering based Parental Controls, which puts the ISP 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 un-ticking the box.

Some implementations of this system are more aggressive than others. For example, Sky will eventually enable the feature regardless of whether or not you missed the original notice, but the account owner can still disable it whenever they want and that’s true of all the above ISPs. Sky’s spokesperson said, “the automatic position of Sky Broadband Shield is the safest one for all – that’s ‘on’.

However yesterday’s agreement on a new EU law to protect the Net Neutrality principle of treating all Internet traffic as equal (here) appears to have put a cat amongst the pigeons, although it’s not quite as strict as the Daily Mail appear to be reporting and indeed the new law has plenty of loopholes.

Net Neutrality Rule (Extract from the Agreed Text)

Providers will be required to treat all traffic equally when providing internet access services, without discrimination, restriction or interference, and irrespective of the sender and receiver, the content accessed or distributed, the applications or services used.

On the surface the law suggests that any ISP choosing to automatically block legal content, be that pornography or other adult material (gambling or self-harm websites etc.), could from late 2016 find themselves operating in direct contravention to the new rules and thus be doing so illegally. Naturally this has the UK Government worried.

A Downing Street source told the DailyMail: “[The EU rules] won’t kick in until the end of 2016. This means that if we need to we will bring in our own domestic law to retain the existing filtering systems the ISPs have put in place. In essence nothing will change.”

But strictly speaking the Government doesn’t actually need a new law and there will no doubt be huge concerns at any attempt to legislate for an automatic filtering system, particularly since smaller ISPs would struggle to afford it and many of the bigger providers don’t even offer anything that strict.

Similarly the new EU rules do actually allow for ISPs to offer network-level filtering systems, yet crucially this must be done “with the prior request or consent of end-users and the possibility to withdraw the consent, and thus such filters, at any time” (i.e. ISPs can’t impose network-level censorship without first getting customer approval).

In reality all that’s needed here is for some ISPs to tweak their existing systems so that they NEVER PRESUME customer consent, which means that simply enabling the filtering regardless of whether or not a choice has been made would no longer be allowed (Sky take note). This still achieves the original ambition, albeit without needing a controversial new domestic law.

Lest we not forget that such filtering is notoriously unreliable, incredibly easy to circumvent and often suffers from a mix of incorrect blocks caused by system errors, incorrect categorisation of websites (e.g. victim help sites being blocked under the ‘self-harm’ category) and sometimes generally overzealous censorship (beauty products, alternative politic viewpoints etc.).

In one recent example both BT and Virgin Media blocked their customers from accessing an award-winning craft watch making business called Struthers London. It wasn’t until the owner was contacted by a customer on Twitter that she found out, although Virgin refuse to believe that there wasn’t any porn or violent content on her site and was told to “tell her customers to turn the filters off“, even though their customers couldn’t see the site or hear the message!

The block was eventually lifted, but that one example shows just how dangerous filtering can be to people and businesses. A spokesperson for Struthers London said, “customers… will assume there is something wrong with our website, not the filters – they are more likely to trust BT or Virgin, than a small business like ours.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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