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ISP Sky Broadband Adopt Default-On Approach to UK Internet Censorship

Thursday, July 7th, 2016 (1:36 pm) - Score 3,249
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Sky Broadband has today followed up last year’s promise (here) by becoming the first major ISP in the United Kingdom enable network-level filtering by default for all new subscribers when they sign-up (i.e. Parental Controls that block access to “adult” websites).

Until now all of the big ISPs have offered customers an “enforced” choice of whether or not to enable censorship when they sign-up, which comes pre-ticked as “Yes” (i.e. to disable it you simply un-tick the box). A list of various categories is then offered for censorship (e.g. self-harm, social networking [Facebook], porn, dating, sex education etc.), which is usually followed by the ability to set an age restriction and or access periods for different times of day.

This semi-voluntary approach is seen as providing a good balance between wider concerns about excessive censorship and the need to give subscribers, particularly parents, an easy ability to control the content that their children can access online.

However the Government have been calling for such censorship to be enabled by default and they’re even considering a legislative change in order to get around a potential conflict with the EU’s new Net Neutrality rules (here), although Brexit may well solve that one. Today Sky has become the first to grant their wish, but they probably won’t be the last.

But Sky’s approach isn’t one of a dumb filter and you can still switch it off. The first time someone tries to access a filtered website, the account holder will instead be invited to amend the settings or turn it off altogether. As a result Sky can offer safe surfing, while still giving account holders the flexibility to choose the settings most appropriate for their households.

Lyssa McGowan, Sky’s Brand Director for Comms Product, said:

“Our experience has shown that this “Default On”, or as we call it “Auto On”, approach leads to much greater use of filtering. Last year, we adopted “Auto On” with some of our existing customers which we found delivered much higher engagement and usage of Sky Broadband Shield. Around two thirds of customers we rolled it out to have continued to make use of the software. This is much higher than anyone else in the industry using other approaches. Customers are typically just asked whether they want to switch on filtering when they activate their broadband. It means take up rates are between only 5 and 10% because customers ignore the choice put in front of them or automatically click no without considering the implications.

This is why we decided to make “Auto On” standard practice for all our new Sky Broadband customers including our soon to be launched new NOW TV Combo service. Furthermore over the coming months we will be contacting millions more Sky Broadband customers who haven’t yet made a decision about Sky Broadband Shield. If they don’t respond, we will switch it on for them and invite them to amend or switch it off themselves.”

Obviously if you force censorship upon your customers then of course it will improve take-up, although we’d be interested to see what evidence Sky has created to prove that their initial take-up rates were low because, as they claim, customers either “ignore the choice put in front of them” or “automatically click no without considering the implications.”

Mind you, network level censorship is never a complete solution or a substitute for good parental guidance, not least because such filters don’t actually prevent access to adult content (i.e. it’s very easy to circumvent). On top of that they can also hamper access to perfectly legitimate websites (i.e. due to either mis-categorisation or filtering errors, such as stopping access to help sites for victims of self-harm).

Sadly websites that find themselves being unfairly blocked often won’t find out about it unless a visitor informs them and in the meantime they could suffer a loss of business. Sky also has a long history of filtering errors, which have disrupted some perfectly safe websites (e.g. here, here and here).

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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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4 Responses
  1. Web Dude

    I recently came across a adult site block, when I started using FreedomPop (in a beta trial – a US firm which has partnered with Three). I’m paying £6.99 a month with unlimited calls, unlimited texts, and 2.25 GB of data. I found I was blocked from a specific “find a partner” dating site. I did a quick search and could find gay and lesbian dating sites though didn’t attempt to start free trials. Upon query, the Support person said that all adult sites were blocked to comply with UK law, and they say

    “Just to let you know, We dont have any access on unblocking the web site, we are not aware that there were web site that you can still view. We are just following the law in the UK.

    In accordance with local laws, adult content is automatically blocked from being viewed on our network. We currently do not have an application process to allow access to adult content for “of-age” users.

    You should still be able to access adult content over WiFi.”

    It’s a minor nuisance to me, especially with me having other options at home and another mobile with some data allowance…

    I switched to FreedomPop from TPO because TPO is switching from Three 3G to Three 4G, and my 4G phone – LG Spirit – bought unlocked through Three, died (with accusations I had tampered with it (but Three supplied it unlocked and I have had no need for messing about with it).

    I only started using TPO (The People’s Operator) around 18 months ago as I read (on Hot UK Deals) that Three was planning to withdraw the “One Plan” account which gave unlimited internet, 2000 minutes and 5000 texts for (in my case) £15 (later went up to £20/month).

    • Gregory Kohs

      Good luck with the People’say Operator. They’really losing money rapidly and their stock price is down about 85%, so you might not have their service much longer, whether you like it or not.

    • Web Dude

      Sorry Gregory, if you misunderstood – I’ve used TPO in parallel with Three for the past 15-18 months but their decision to switch all users from 3G to 4G (at least in my area) on the Three network is going to lose me (I have my PAC already) because my LG 4G phone is dead and thus I’ll be unable to use TPO anyway.

      No idea if they are losing money or not – they’ve given me good service (apart from their money saving need for limited number of call centre staff, leading to me having to make multiple calls to get to speak to someone – I was getting cut off after each 12 minute wait so had to call in again.

      I would have happily recommended them – good pricing policies and a charity benefit too – but this switch to 4G only means it could be more awkward where a family might buy a used 3G mobile for a child to take out with them when going to the park, etc… as now the 3G handset won’t be usable with TPO.

  2. Web Dude

    I should have added – FreedomPop has no facility to handle a PAC (porting phone number into their service) and with this disclosure, I wonder how “integrated” they are with Three (if “integrated” is even applicable).

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