Are virus killers next step in ISP wars?

Subscription ISPs considering anti-virus, anti-spam, anti-pornography services to differentiate from free competition

Britain's top subscription-charging ISPs are looking into a new service to lure consumers away from the free competition: protection from viruses, spam and even pornography.

More than 30 ISPs met Thursday morning with anti-virus firm Starlabs to look into how they might offer such features. Big names included Equiinet, BT Labs (BT: quote ), Claranet, Planet Internet, PSI Net, Global Internet as well as newcomer Orange (ORA: quote ) .

The notable absence of any of the UK's free ISPs from the briefing means that charging service providers could soon be offering complimentary virus, spam and porn scanning services in an effort to woo customers away from their free competitors. But virus technologist at Starlabs Alex Shipp believes that this competitive edge could provoke the likes of Freeserve (FRE: quote ) to start providing the same. "Once they've started offering virus scanning, the free ISPs may start doing the same in order to keep up. And we're hoping that at the end of the meeting people will all be fighting to sign-up for our service."

The interest from ISPs in the wake of several well-publicised virus scares could be good news for Starlabs, which is looking to expand its UK customer base. The company could also benefit from the growing trend toward centralising applications on the Internet, rather than running them all on the desktop.

Technical director of Starlabs Mark Sunner believes that this is the next obvious step in providing Internet users with a high quality service. "I think that the 'S' in ISP means that people are going to start asking for this service," he says. "ISPs are perfectly placed and its logical. You wouldn't expect to have to scan for Semtex when a parcel arrives at your house would you?"

Starlabs boasts an impressive virus detection success rate claiming that only two viruses have ever evaded its scanning technology and that none of its customers were affected by the Melissa epidemic in June of this year. The company has also recorded significant evidence of the new Prilissa spreading among British businesses. Starlabs uses a combination of four different scanners from Network Associates, Sophos, Datafellows and CyberSoft.

Using its own heuristic engines, Starlabs promises that it will also soon be able to filter out spam and pornography by searching for a number of key characteristics including keywords and addresses and the amount of skin tone in a digital image.

Starlabs will also provide a quarantine facility over the new year for ISP concerned about Y2K triggered viruses.

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