UK to automatically filter 'adult' internet content

Internet subscribers will be asked to choose whether or not to filter adult content by the end of next year.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has announced an agreement signed with the country's four largest internet service providers to have home network-based internet filters switched on by default for subscribers by the end of next year

In a speech delivered on Monday, the prime minister said the government had reached an agreement with BT, TalkTalk, Virgin and Sky to, by the end of 2013, have all new subscribers prompted to install 'family-friendly' filters at the time of subscription, with the default set to have the filter turned on.

"And, in a really big step forward, all the ISPs have rewired their technology so that once your filters are installed, they will cover any device connected to your home internet account," Cameron said.

"No more hassle of downloading filters for every device, just one click protection. One click to protect your whole home and keep your children safe."

Once activated, the filter can only be switched off by the account holder, who must be an adult, Cameron said.

According to the BBC, it will be up to the ISP to determine what filtering system they use, with some opting for filtering software provided to customers, while others have filtering on the customer's router, or directly from the ISP.

The ISPs will now also be approaching the 19 million households already connected to the internet over the next year and will be asking those households to choose whether the filter should be activated or not.

Cameron said TalkTalk had already commenced these discussions and all UK homes will have been forced to make a decision on internet filtering by the end of 2014.

The PM said this agreement would cover nine out of 10 premises in the UK.

"There will be no escaping this decision, no 'remind me later' and then it never gets done," he said.

"And they will ensure it is an adult making the choice. If adults don't want these filters — that's their decision."

In addition to this, all UK mobile operators already have adult content filters on phones automatically that can only be deactivated with proof that the user is over 18 years of age.

The UK government has also reached an agreement with the largest public Wi-Fi operators — O2, Virgin Media, Sky, Nomad, BT and Arqiva — to install so-called 'family-friendly' filters by the end of this month.

Cameron stressed that the shift to default internet filtering in the UK was not about government censorship but protecting children from accessing adult content.

"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," he said.

He also rejected suggestions that a filter will bring about complacency for parents, saying that the government will aim to educate parents on the filters.

"We need good filters that are pre-selected to be on unless an adult turns them off and we need parents aware and engaged in the setting of those filters."

Cameron told the BBC that it will be up to the ISPs to decide what content is initially included in the filter, but said it would start with pornographic sites and potentially self-harm or suicide websites, with users to be able to add additional content onto the filter list if they wish.

"It's no good the government just trying to lay down the law. You've got to work with the companies and design the systems so that they don't block legitimate sites," he said.

When pushed on the type of content that would be blocked, Cameron could not be specific.

"It doesn't mean it will block, for instance, access to The Sun, but it would block pornography."

Cameron said he didn't think that the filter would block erotic text such as Fifty Shades of Grey.

The government will also integrate police databases across the UK for a single database for child abuse material on the internet to give the police more information to track down and close down networks sharing the material.

Cameron also called on search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and Bing to step up their efforts to block child abuse content from appearing in their search results.

The UK government also plans to criminalise the ownership of extreme pornographic material such as rape material.

"We are closing the loophole — making it a criminal offence to possess internet pornography that depicts rape. And we are doing something else to make sure that the same rules apply online as they do offline," he said.

"There are some examples of extreme pornography that are so bad that you can’t even buy this material in a licensed sex shop. And today I can announce we will be legislating so that videos streamed online in the UK are subject to the same rules as those sold in shops.

"Put simply — what you can't get in a shop, you will no longer be able to get online."

Cameron's comments echo that of former Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy who abandoned an attempt to implement a mandatory ISP-level internet filter in Australia for all content that was deemed to be refused classification in Australia's classification system. The scheme was abandoned in late 2012, in favour of an ISP-level filter of Interpol's 'worst-of-the-worst' list of child abuse websites.

The BBC has reported that some ISPs are unhappy at the UK government insisting on marketing the internet filtering changes as a "default on" for filtering rather than an active choice customers can make in whether or not to filter their internet service.

Editorial standards