Porn filters criticised as BT goes opt-out

December 16, 2013 // 10:54 a.m.

Tags: #bt #censor #censorship #child-protection #cleanfeed #david-cameron #opt-out #pete-oliver #porn #porn-filters #pornography #privacy

BT has announced that it will be asking all its existing broadband customers to opt out of its filtering system, even as concerns grow that said filters may do more harm than good.

Part of Prime Minister David Cameron's plan to add block-by-default filters to all UK internet connections, announced back in July, BT's revised Parental Controls system is enabled for all new customers who then have to manually opt out of the system. Early next year, however, BT will start to contact existing customers who signed up before the on-by-default filter system was enabled and ask them to explicitly state they want to receive adult content or else have the filter foisted upon them.

'BT takes the issue of online child protection extremely seriously and we are very pleased to be able to launch the whole-home filter to help parents keep their families safe online,' claimed BT's managing director of consumer commercial marketing and digital Pete Oliver. 'It adds to the many tools we already make available for free to our customers. We’ve been focused on the issue of online safety since we developed the world’s first Cleanfeed filter to block child abuse images and made the technology available free to other ISPs across the world a decade ago.'

Even as BT sends the system, previously tested with volunteers from the Mumsnet community, live there are increasing concerns that the filters may do more harm than good. Late last week the Telegraph published a report claiming that the filters were preventing children from viewing educational pages on sexual health and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) matters - including, for some, pages served by the National Health Service (NHS) specifically to address childrens' questions surrounding puberty, alcohol abuse and abstinence support.

'I've said it many times before, and I'll keep saying it. Sexual health is not "adult content"' wrote the Telegraph's Brooke Magnanti in the feature. 'Lumping important (and for many young people, the only) sexual health advice they will have access to in with porn is a mistake. I've always supported voluntary blocks installed by parents on a home by home basis, but phone and internet providers need to understand that doing this for everyone as a default is not their job. More to the point, politicians need to understand that making internet providers do so is not the Government's job.'

The opt-out filter system is designed to run alongside Cleanfeed, a government-mandated and all-encompassing filter system originally introduced to block access to images of child abuse but since expanded to prevent the viewing of selected file-sharing sites and soon extremist political content. While the adult filter system can be switched off by account holders who don't mind making their feelings about such content plain, Cleanfeed cannot be disabled except via the use of encrypted tunnels and virtual private networks with exit points in countries not covered by the system.

These techniques - along with even simpler methods, like the misuse of Google Translate's proxy feature to view supposedly blocked content - can also be used to bypass the out-out adult content filters, of course, raising further questions as to their efficacy in preventing children from viewing unsuitable material online.
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