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All TalkTalk internet subscribers to be asked whether they want to activate content filters

Out-Law News | 14 May 2012 | 3:49 pm | 4 min. read

Every customer subscribed to TalkTalk's internet network will be asked whether they want to be able to access pornographic material before the end of the year, the company has said.

TalkTalk said that it wants to expand its current procedure whereby new customers are asked whether they wish to activate parental controls. The internet service provider (ISP) said that a survey of new customers has revealed that those buying internet access from them are mostly positive about being given the choice. A third of TalkTalk's new customers have opted-in to using the controls since the company began providing the choice at the point of purchase in March.

"TalkTalk remains the only ISP to ask new customers to make an upfront decision about using parental controls," Dido Harding, chief executive of TalkTalk, said in a blog post. "Since we began doing this in March, one in three new customers has chosen to activate them; that’s roughly equivalent to the number of households with children. This shows that customers value being offered a choice."

"In fact, 80% of new TalkTalk customers we recently spoke to said that they thought being offered the choice of using filters upfront was a good thing and over 60% said that they wouldn’t have turned on parental controls had they not been asked to make a choice. We recently announced that we intend to ask all existing customers to make an active choice and we will begin trials later in the year," she said.

Harding said TalkTalk is aiming to have at least one million customers using its 'HomeSafe' technology by March next year. Currently 350,000 use the parental controls provided by the service.

"With 92% of households with children using more than one device to access the internet, I believe that controls like HomeSafe, that protect the entire home internet connection, are the only way you can truly offer parents a choice about the content that comes into their homes," she said.

TalkTalk's HomeSafe service enables parents to "protect [their] kids from seeing inappropriate websites, with easy to set content categories", according to the company.

Last year TalkTalk was one of four UK ISPs to sign up to a new code of practice committing those providers to give parents an "active choice" over whether to utilise content controls when they go to buy their service.

The company, together with BT, Sky and Virgin Media, said they had "developed and agreed a code of practice" based on recommendations made in a Government-commissioned report on the sexualisation of children published in June. 

That report called for the Government to regulate if the internet industry did not voluntarily develop better parental controls over online content. Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union charity and author of the report, had raised concerns about the increasing commercialisation and sexualisation of children. 

Subsequently, calls have been made for automatic pornography filters to be introduced by default that would force internet users who wish to access the material to actively opt-in to be able to do so. Earlier this month the Government announced that it would consult on proposals that would require ISPs to block customers' access to pornographic material by default.

Last month an independent Parliamentary inquiry into online child protection advised that a "network-level 'opt-in' system, maintained by ISPs" could deliver "a clean internet feed" by default, but enable consumers to "choose to receive adult content" if they so wished. The inquiry report said such a system "would preserve consumer choice but provide an additional content barrier that protected children from accessing age-inappropriate material." The inquiry members had recommended that the Government consult on the proposals.

Media reports have suggested that the Government's consultation on the issue will not be formed as part of an official 'Green Paper' but instead take the form of an independent review.

In addition, a private members bill was also put forward in the House of Lords which would have introduced a legislative "duty" on ISPs and mobile network operators that provide internet access services to "provide a service that excludes pornographic images" by default.

The Online Safety Bill, if enacted, would have enabled subscribers aged 18 to access adult content only if they actively opted-in to do so, but even then access would have to be denied unless the website featuring the images "has an age verification policy which has been used to confirm that the subscriber is aged 18 or over".

The Bill made no progress following an initial reading in the House of Lords during the last Parliamentary session.

A trade body representative UK ISPs previously told Out-Law.com that legislating on default porn-blocking measures was neither appropriate nor required.

"It is important for parents to take an active role in what their children see and do online and configure and tailor tools as appropriate," a spokesperson for the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) said. "Many ISPs already offer solutions as part of their service to help prevent users accessing unwanted content online and ISPs actively promote these to their customers." 

"Filtering by default will only reduce the degree of active interest and parental mediation, lull parents into a false sense of security and lead to over blocking. The question also arises of who decides what is pornographic and what is not," the spokesperson said.

"ISPA does not believe there is a need for legislation on this issue as there is healthy competition in the industry and ISPs are responsive to consumer demands. The Bailey Report published last year also acknowledged that 'industry already does much to help educate parents about parental controls, age-restriction and content filters'. Government should concentrate on helping educate consumers to ensure they know about the tools already available to them to restrict unwanted content," the spokesperson said.