UK rethinks awful opt-in web porn filter, comes up with a marginally better idea

The debate over whether Internet service providers should be automatically blocking adult content on the Web in the UK continues, however this weekend, news of a slightly tweaked plan has broken.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is said to be pushing forward with a new set of proposals, which veer away from the opt-in schemes from before — where the filter would be active unless you asked for it to be switched off — to a slightly more sensible opt-out system.

Referred to as active choice, the idea is that anyone who buys a new computer or signs-up with a new ISP will be asked whether children will have access to the computer. If the answer is yes, users will be guided through the installation of a filter, before answering a series of questions to set its sensitivity.

To stop cheeky under-18s from bypassing the filter before installation, unnamed measures will be implemented to confirm the person’s age from the start. The proposal may be announced before December.

Filters for the technically naive

Details on the new filter come from a report published by the Daily Mail, a UK newspaper with a poor reputation which has been pushing its own Block Online Porn campaign for a while, despite publishing questionable content itself on a regular basis.

It cites studies that say one in three children under the age of 10 have viewed pornographic material online, while four out of five aged between 14 and 16 do so on a regular basis.

While the new plans go against the blanket op-out schemes previously being considered, the Daily Mail is still claiming this as a victory, despite the system being nowhere near as restrictive as it wanted.

Internet filters appeal to the technically naive, but there’s no guarantee they’ll work. One of the reasons a filter is being considered is to assist parents with no knowledge of computers or the Internet (and obviously, no wish to learn) help stop their children accessing adult content. Except filters are easily avoidable by those with a modicum of know-how, i.e. the kids.

Filters are often ineffectual

There are also problems with filters not only blocking the wrong content, but failing to block that which it’s supposed to. For example, last year a well-known adult video website still appeared to users behind TalkTalk’s HomeSafe filter, as the message the site had been blocked only appeared in a box usually reserved for an advert.

TalkTalk is still the only major ISP in the UK to provide a cross-platform Internet filter, although Sky and Virgin Media have both agreed in principle to implement the government’s plans in the future, should they become mandatory. For now though, both let users choose what can be viewed online in the privacy of their own homes.

It’s becoming increasingly likely that a government enforced filter will be introduced in the UK in the future. While worrying, if one really must be introduced, this latest version is the least insidious discussed so far.

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