Despite EU rules that prevent online content filtering, UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been blocking adult content and various other websites for years. Forthcoming Internet legislation proposed by the ruling Conservative party would further enshrine the rights of ISPs to have a say in which content their users are allowed to access.
The issue has been around since 2013 when then-Prime Minister David Cameron championed an online child-protection initiative. Based on it, four leading ISPs joined in adult content filtering as part of their bid to sanitize and censor the web. New broadband customers received an opt-out screen during setup, asking whether they wanted the filters switched on. The “yes” option was checked by default, meaning those who skipped through setup missed their chance to decide.
Critics say that such restrictions contravene the EU’s Net Neutrality law, which prevents Internet providers from interfering with online traffic. There is no objective oversight of the ban lists, and nothing to prevent the government from extending the filter beyond its original mission, for instance, to restrict political dissent.
Besides, the so-called “porn filters” have already been shown to block a load of different stuff, from information on hacking to sex education sites. Back in 2014, the digital rights organization Open Rights Group used an in-house developed tool to test the top 100,000 sites on the web, showing just how widespread the ISP filters had become. They found the filters blocking as many as 1 in 5 websites, many of which included innocuous, inoffensive or educational content. Some ISPs choose to treat VPN sites as adult content as well.
ISPs do not supply any checking tools that would allow website owners to get to know whether their site is being blocked. However, the Open Rights Group website called Blocked.org.uk allows doing that.
ISP web filters use blacklists of restricted sites and automatically block pages by examining keywords to guess whether a site should be prohibited.
The key thing to remember is that these filters work at the network level. Even with customization, all users within a household are subject to the same web filters. The advantage for parents is that they no longer have to configure settings on every bit of hardware that has a web browser.
TalkTalk was the first British ISP to launch a network-level block, which was later adopted by other major providers as well. New users are asked to decide whether to set the filters when they join up.
The HomeSafe parental controls fall into two categories: Kids Safe and Homework Time. There is also the Virus Alert option to avoid infected websites.
Kids Safe is the part of the system that deals with general content blocking: it allows parents to select among nine broad categories to be restricted, such as Suicide and Self Harm, Filesharing, etc. Homework Time lets parents set a time to block access to social networking and game websites, either every day of the week or Monday to Friday only.
If you’re a BP customer, you have the network-based filter that covers all devices connected via the BT Hub in your home. Three pre-defined filter levels are available: Strict, Moderate and Light. For instance, the Light level blocks websites falling into such categories as Pornography or Obscene and Tasteless, but allows access to Weapons and Violence.
Sky has been enabling the network-level web filter by default for all new customers, and for existing clients who didn’t respond to prompts, since July 2016. The Shield filter offers simple control categories (PG, 13 and 18; with 13 being the default option for all new customers), a watershed option, and some customisation settings (custom category blocking and a whitelist for individual sites).
Please note that the “this site is blocked” message will only appear on the device that was used to set up the service originally. All other devices on the network will get a timeout error instead, which might be confusing.
If you use Virgin’s broadband services, the Web Safe feature will filter content for any device connected to your home network. Two settings are available: Virus Safe and Child Safe, and the content filters come with the latter.
You can add or remove blocked sites, and there’s a timer option to allow Web Safe to be switched off for certain periods.
A voluntary code of practice approved by major UK ISPs means that customers have to opt out of the default ISP filtering to gain access to the blocked content. If you want to disable the filter, the exact procedure differs according to your ISP.
If you try to open a site blocked by the Kids Safe filter, you will receive an on-screen explanation and tips on how to manage the filter:
If you want to remove some or all of the HomeSafe controls, follow these steps:
If you try to access a VPN or other harmless site and the access-barred box appears, you can override the bar for an hour or change your filter settings to select that individual site for your “Approved” list. Approved sites override any filters set.
To remove BT Parental Controls entirely, follow these steps:
If you try to open a VPN or other site that Broadband Shield has blocked, you will get an on-screen explanation and advice on how to manage the filter:
To remove some or all of the Broadband Shield controls, follow these steps:
As with most other web filters, you can choose individual sites to be whitelisted. However, if you want to disable the Web Safe option, follow these steps:
Did you find these tips useful? Let us know in the comments below.