ISPs agree to activate pornography filters by default in Ofcom-overseen scheme

Out-Law News | 23 Jul 2013 | 9:46 am | 3 min. read

The four main internet service providers (ISPs) have agreed to contact over 19 million existing customers to give them an "unavoidable decision" about whether to install family friendly content filters, the Prime Minister has announced.

New customers will have the filters applied automatically when they set up their broadband account unless the account holder, who has to be an adult, switches them off, he said.

In a speech on child protection and online pornography, David Cameron said that filters would be introduced on new accounts with the four main providers from the end of this year and would apply to all computers, smartphones and tablets connected to that account. Those ISPs will be expected to have contacted existing customers using "their own technological solutions" by the end of next year, Cameron said.

He added that Ofcom would oversee the effectiveness of the new filters and "report back regularly". Smaller companies would be asked to apply the same filters on a voluntary basis, he said.

"Let's be clear: this has never been a debate about companies or government censoring the internet but about filters to protect children at the home network level," Cameron said.

"I want this to be a priority for all internet service providers not just now, but always. That's why ... I'm asking Ofcom, the industry regulator, to oversee this work, judge how well the ISPs are doing and report back regularly. If they find that we are not protecting children effectively I will not hesitate to take further action," he said.

In his speech, Cameron also called for search engines to "blacklist" certain search terms, and for warning pages to pop up with helpline numbers when people try to search for illegal content. Companies would be given until October to do their "moral duty" and draw up a plan to block illegal content, he said.

"The question we have asked is clear: if [the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre] give you a black-list of internet search terms, will you commit to stop offering up any returns to these searches?" he said.

"If in October we don't like the answer we're given to this question, if the progress is slow or non-existent, then I can tell you we are already looking at the legislative options we have to force action," he said.

Late last year the Government stepped back from making it a legal requirement for ISPs to automatically block access to pornography and other adult content unless consumers elected to opt out at the point of purchase. At the time, the Government said there was "no great appetite among parents" for such a default filtering scheme.

Plans to present parents with "an active choice" over whether to control their children's access to some online content at the point of purchase were developed by BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media in 2011. TalkTalk already allows customers to opt in to online filtering during installation, and has begun notifying its existing customers.

In addition, mobile phone operators have agreed to put adult content filters onto phones automatically which can only be deactivated by users who can prove that they are over 18. The Government has also come to an agreement with the six main providers of public wi-fi that filters will be applied "across the public wi-fi network wherever children are likely to be present" by the end of next month, Cameron said.

The Government is also to criminalise the possession of violent, "extreme" pornography, such as that depicting rape, in England and Wales. This will bring this part of the law into line with Scotland, where possession of this material is already a criminal offence, Cameron said. In addition, streaming video online in the UK will also be subject to the same indecency laws as that sold in licensed sex shops, he said.

The ISP Association (ISPA) said that online child safety was a "priority issue" for the industry, but warned that content filters were "only part of the solution".

"We're pleased the Government recognises and has welcomed the considerable work ISPs are already doing," said Nicholas Lansman, ISPA Secretary General. "They are investing a great deal of time and expertise into offering customers a choice over installing free and easy-to-use content filters."

"However, filters, which can lead to over and under blocking and can be easy to circumvent, are only part of the solution. As recommended by the last government review, a more holistic approach involving retailers and manufacturers is required, along with an emphasis on education, awareness and parental mediation," he said.