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Service providers raise concerns over Internet censorship

Mark Jackson, ISP Review |

A successful Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the UK government’s Department for Education (DfE) has revealed that broadband ISPs BT and Virgin Media have raised a number of political, technical and legal concerns with proposals to toughen censorship of adult websitesand related internet content via new Parental Controls.

Last year four of the UK’s biggest broadband ISPs (BTVirgin MediaSky Broadband and TalkTalk) agreed to help protect children online (here) by launching a new Code of Practice that would provide customers (e.g. parents) with an “enforced” option to block adult web content at the point of purchase (Active Choice). But some politicians want even tougher measures.

The new FoI request, which was made by a campaigner for communications rights, P.John, called upon the DfE to disclose several responses to the recent Parental Internet Controls Consultation that closed earlier this month.

This consultation proposed three potential options for handling the censorship of websites by UK internet providers, which included Claire Perry’s (Conservative MP) highly controversial demand for ISPs to introduce an automatic adult content block. Suffice to say that ISPs appear to be less than pleased with all the recent ministerial “uncertainty” surrounding Active Choice’s future and have aired a number of concerns.

Extract from BT’s Response:

Much of the current debate has focused on adult content that is legal, although not suitable for children. It is not clear from the questions who would decide on which content/sites get blocked by default. If BT, or any other ISP, was asked to block adult content without customer consent, there are questions about how any ISP might decide what sites came under this definition. Indeed what is the definition of adult content – is it just pornographic material ( the main campaign focus), or does it include violence, gambling and alcohol sites? It has been suggested that a system similar to film classification could be used to identify sites to block, but while this is workable for films the internet contains a great deal more content and it is increasing on an hourly basis. So finding a way of reliably categorising the sites could be challenging.

We are also concerned about being challenged in the courts were we to block by default any legal sites. There is a vociferous community which campaigns for freedom on the internet and for them, a cardinal principle is that ISPs should not interfere with their communications without consent. There are also questions about how default blocking might be viewed in terms of net neutrality or being anti-competitive. Ofcom and the European Commission have recently been pushing for an open internet where traffic is not blocked or managed, and default blocking would appear to be contrary to those principles.

It is also worth considering the danger that default blocking could lead to a false sense of security as no technical solution available or envisaged can be guaranteed a 100% success rate in blocking material deemed undesirable. This was one of the main concerns of the Bailey Review.”

BT raises a number of interesting points, not least with the issue of website categorisation. Some definitions could potentially be stretched to cover social networking sites (e.g. Facebook or Twitter) or possibly even online multiplayer games and their related communities. Clothing stores that sell underwear, legitimate sexual / medical education content and similar sites could also be hit.

Sadly though the consultation and ISP responses still haven’t touched on the need for an appeals system to remove sites that have been incorrectly blocked, which might help to tackle some of the aforementioned legal concerns. Certainly several studies have now shown that a lot of sites do get mistakenly caught up in related filtering systems (example).

Extract from Virgin Media’s Response:

The recent uncertainty surrounding Ministerial support for ‘active choice’ has been unhelpful as regards enabling businesses to plan for the long term delivery of solutions for new and existing customers. Despite this, Virgin Media has continued with planned investments in an ‘active choice’ solution for new customers alone, and is considering how to reach out to the existing broadband subscriber base.”

Virgin Media has understood ‘active choice’ not to be a brand, but a tool by which to dramatically increase the visibility of, and engagement with, software controls by subscribers, alongside more and clearer information to parents from all stakeholders. If that is not the case, further direction from Government is required to set the expectations of industry appropriately. Indeed, Virgin Media hopes that, at the culmination of this consultation process, the Department of Education will be in a position to give a clear, long-term view of the steps that industry should take to deliver an appropriate level of protection for children online.”

On top of all this we should not forget that many free internet filtering services already exist and no system is infallible. The recent blocks against The Pirate Bay and Newzbin have shown that they’re also largely ineffective and incredibly easy to circumvent.