BT Internet Filter

Just before Christmas, BT officially turned on its new internet filter, joining Sky, O2, and Talk Talk who also block sites from their users. This is in compliance with the initiative put forward by David Cameron last summer which seeks to, in his words, prevent children ‘stumbling across hardcore legal pornography’. With Virgin due to join the clampdown soon, this will mean around 95 percent of UK internet traffic will potentially be filtered by the end of 2014.

The filters are not solely there for standard pornography, but are also intended to prevent paedophiles from accessing images or sites that could contain child pornography, alongside forums and webpages that display graphic violence or could provoke sympathy with extreme political views deemed in the realms of terrorism by the government. The plan is ambitious in its scope, but has taken heavy criticism from many who see it as a sneaky way to gain control of the internet under the guise of protecting the public good. See also: How to keep your kids safe online

Whereas most people would support the idea of preventing the kind of material mentioned above being freely available, the problem with filters is that they are a very blunt tool employed to do a delicate job. Proof of this came when various users started noticing a number of high-profile sites that had suddenly become inaccessible once the filters were turned on.

ChildLine grabbed the most headlines, but other notable absences were the Samaritans, NSPCC, the domestic violence charity Refuge, and a number of sex education sites. Bizarrely there were also reports that the government’s own Gov.uk portal and Parliament.uk sites fell victim to the censorship, as did the personal webpage of MP Claire Perry who has been a vocal supporter of the filter initiative.

Of course it wasn’t long before the furore caused ISPs to fix the errant censoring of these legitimate organisations, but it highlights how inaccurate the system will be. O2 was the most pilloried, but perhaps unfairly given that the parental control filter it offers basically turns off most of the internet in an attempt to make it a safe playground for under 12s. In an interview with the Independent a spokesman for O2 briefly explained why the sites came to be blocked in the first place.

"As you can appreciate there are millions of sites that exist and sometimes they can fall through the net to be categorised correctly. ChildLine, the NSPCC and the Samaritans have all now been added to the ‘allowed’ list for Parental Control".

Certainly the idea of censorship on the internet is not one that sits easily with many people. It requires a strong level of trust between the user and the provider, something that has been eroded in the post-Edward Snowden world we now inhabit. Governments have shown themselves to be happy to employ devious, and quite possibly illegal  methods to surveil the general public, with little or no apparent accountability to its citizens.

Once a filter is in place how will we know if the number of blocked sites is slowly increased to include politically embarrassing portals such as Wikileaks or Democracy Now? Then there is the question of who is doing the actual filtering. While BT, Sky, and the others will be at the front end of the process, it’s more likely that the programming skills needed for such endeavours will be outsourced to private companies.

"Beyond the reasons of commercial confidentiality, there are reasons why ISPs may be reluctant to tell you who makes the blocking decisions", writes internet campaigner Jim Killock on the Open Rights Group blog. "Some ISPs buy filtering services from countries with differing religious or cultural values to the UK - attitudes to guns, alcohol, sex and discrimination may not match customer expectations. Some use services that use computer algorithms to do the bulk of their classification. Others may use cheap labour.

"What you can guarantee is that filtering is error prone. The sheer number of classifications to make means that costs have to be kept low. But without some level of transparency and accountability, not just to their customers but to the internet at large, why should people trust the decisions ISPs make about what they or their children are allowed to see?"

The actual effectiveness of filters is also highly questionable, as was illustrated when the Chrome extension ‘Go Away Cameron’ was recently released, allowing users to easily bypass the restrictions. The issue of child pornography has also been drawn into question, as it’s not really possible to run searches on Google or Bing to find the offensive images that paedophiles seek. Recent agreements from Microsoft and Google now mean that any searches for the subject matter return warnings that such content is illegal, and instead provide links to organisations that can help with the evil addiction.

Child with Kindle

Of course it’s easy to get caught up in the civil rights issues of government influenced censorship and actually miss the intended purpose for the filters, political grandstanding aside. With children now having more access to the internet thanks to tablets and mobile phones, it’s becoming increasingly challenging for parents to ensure that their kids remain safe online. A six-year-old is far more likely to stumble across Peppa Pig than anything hardcore, but without dedicated children’s accounts on devices such as iPads and iPhones it can be confusing to set content filters for them without hampering your own results. The new filters can go a long way to helping in this area, but as the censoring is done at the source it means that adults then only have access to a child’s version of the internet. See also: Get web filtering with OpenDNS FamilyShield

Like most things in life there isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all solution. The filters remain optional, although you are automatically opted in if you are a new account holder, so you are still free to decide how you browse. BT also offers three different levels of filtering that starts with the usual suspects of pornography, alcohol, drugs, etc, and increases in severity up to the strict setting which prohibits anything vaguely adult, including fashion, gambling, and gaming. Various other solutions already exist that can achieve similar results, such as CyberPatrol, Net Nanny, and Norton Family, albeit for a small cost.

If parents are seriously concerned about how their children access information online, and of course they should be, then one of these solutions should definitely be employed in one fashion or another. The important thing to be stressed though is that it would not be a silver bullet. Just as the television once became the babysitter for many kids, an internet filter has the potential to be viewed the same way, but with more serious flaws.

TV - after all - is a one-way medium, but the internet is far more dynamic. The safest way of teaching children about the internet is to do just that, sensibly, patiently, and with a lot of talking together. A filter can stop them seeing many things, but a parent can help them understand and process anything they finally do encounter accidentally...or not.