British broadband users are overwhelmingly rejecting the government’s recently introduced ‘porn filters’, with six out of seven choosing to opt out.
Under the system, introduced at the beginning of the year, the country’s four biggest ISPs agreed to slap on the filters for all new customers unless specifically asked not to do so.
But in a report, regulator Ofcom says that only five percent of new BT customers, eight percent of Sky customers and four percent of Virgin Media VMED NaN% customers have agreed to the filters, although 36 percent of TalkTalk customers have done so.
So are the British a nation of porn addicts? Ofcom’s theory for the low takeup is that only 40 percent of UK households have children living at home, and many of these have already installed device-level filtering – or else supervise their children themselves.
Part of the reason, though, is the way the choice is given. In the case of Virgin Media, for example, most new installations are handled by an engineer – and it seems that these engineers are rather keener on the free flow of content than the government.
Virgin Media reckons that, in many cases at least, the engineer is simply opting out of the filters without checking with the customer. “It has recognised that this is a failure in process and indicated it is taking steps to address this gap,” says Ofcom. However, I can’t help suspecting that there’s more to it than that: alone of the big four, Virgin Media doesn’t allow any customization of the filters, simply giving customers an on/off choice.
At the other end of the scale, TalkTalk’s high take-up may also be down to something other than conscious customer choice, as the opt-in box comes pre-checked.
The Ofcom report also highlights the extent to which perfectly inoffensive websites are being blocked – something I’ve noted before. More recent victims of the filters include a troop of Girl Guides, a Christian charity – and even the personal blog of a chap who previously worked on a parental controls system himself. Anecdotal evidence suggests that WordPress blogs are being particularly hard hit.
Spotting when sites have been incorrectly blocked isn’t all that easy. By definition, users don’t see the blocked sites, so generally don’t know what they’re missing. Meanwhile, none of the ISPS offers a mechanism for site owners to check whether they’re being blocked – they have to go to anti-filter campaigners the Open Rights Group for that.
And, there’s no mechanism for providers to share information when they’re notified of a miscategorization – meaning that when a legitimate website is reinstated by one ISP it may still be blocked by others.
So where do we go from here? Government plans call for the filters to be introduced, again on an opt-in basis, for all existing customers of the big four ISPs by the end of this year. And prime minister David Cameron has also called for the filter to be installed by default by other ISPs too.
A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said the low take-up doesn’t mean the program is a failure.
“It’s important that parents are aware of these filters and they have the choice to have filters automatically on to protect children from harmful and adult content,” he said, adding that the government has never had any target level for take-up. Let’s hope not: because it’s remarkable how often voluntary initiatives that fail to garner end up becoming compulsory.