This post is by Julia Kukiewicz, Editor of Choose.net
In recent weeks, BT, the UK’s biggest ISP, has given us the gift of router level internet filtering. – Ah, you shouldn’t have.
No, really. The announcement that UK ISPs would soon offer more robust internet filtering on the TalkTalk HomeSafe model – BT Parental Control, Sky Broadband Shield and Virgin Media WebSafe – has been met earlier this year and even more recently with derision and concern.
Could ISPs rolling out this software face a customer revolt? And are consumers right to object?
Bringing in ‘default on’
First, let’s take a look at what the ISPs are doing here.
All the new software is offering is a router level parental control system: users can block sites according to broad categories (‘self-harm’ for example, or ‘guns and violence’), which are identified using keywords or chose to block certain sites.
The block will affect all the devices using the home broadband connection, unlike traditional software, which must be installed on each device individually.
The software is, or will be, ‘default on’ which means that when a home gets a new connection from one of the big five ISPs they’ll be asked to set up parental control software alongside their router installation. If they click away, rather than yes or no to the download, the filters will be set up automatically.
Announcing this feature at a NSPCC event Cameron blustered a bit about default on and then said, “…we need good filters that are preselected to be on, pre-ticked unless an adult turns them off, and we need parents aware and engaged in the setting of those filters.“
In other words, this is nudge politics. Cameron hopes that pre-ticking a box will lead more parents to use this software instead of ignoring it, which is what happens now.
There’s a scene in the BBC series The Thick of It where the main characters are on their way to a policy announcement, without a policy. “So you want something sexy and eye-catching and that is free and universally popular and instantly applicable, no one could possibly object to it?” the researcher says. “Yes,” the MP replies.
This is that idea: it sounds really big and hard-hitting; most people would agree that its basic intent – get kids off the hard stuff – is unobjectionable and, because the cost is borne by ISPs, it doesn’t cost the Government a penny.
This ‘more control software’ idea had been floating around for a few years until Cameron, clearly seeing its something-and-nothing appeal, negotiated with the ISPs and announced it.
All in all, it seems unlikely that customers will be unhappy enough to complain or leave their ISP when they actually go through the process of choosing whether to install this software.
This safety net has holes
If the ‘default on’ process won’t irritate customers, however, the experience of using parental control software might.
TalkTalk’s HomeSafe software, the model for the filters all the major ISPs are or will soon be offering, underblocks content at times, allowing children to access sites their parents have tried to stop them seeing (in December 2011, they even missed PornHub). This type of software also overblocks, catching a lot of content that no sane person would want to stop a child seeing.
TalkTalk have said, “… no technical solution alone is able to solve the issue of child internet safety or be a substitute for parental supervision.”
This effectiveness question is a real issue. If this software stops children using the internet in a way that’s useful for them and the adults in charge get frustrated, turn it off and stop monitoring entirely that’s bad for child safety, the opposite of the desired effect.
In addition, the Open Rights Group and others have pointed out that filtering software could actually make parents less vigilant towards their children’s online safety because they expect it to be ‘safe’. It’s also an issue, older children will be able to get around these filters if they want to, as they can get around many restrictions we use to keep younger children safe.
ISP customer revolt coming
In summary this, actually pretty simple, policy idea has been consistently described as a ‘porn block on everybody’, which it is not, and MPs have several times made announcements before discussing what is actually possible with ISPs.
The debate around these filters has often focused on censorship issues and, although commentators have legitimate concerns about Government and private online security companies, that focus may have actually led consumers to believe that these filters are more effective than they really are.
The plus side of that might be that consumers start to demand effective parental control software, which has long been lacking in the broadband market, but don’t expect ISPs to improve their offerings without some pressure.
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