Sky launches broadband filtering of porn, violence and hate

Symantec system will offer PG, 13 and 18 ratings

Sky has announced Broadband Shield, a content filtering system it hopes will mollify Government calls for ISPs to automatically block a range of content such as hardcore porn without forcing it to impose strict controls on all customers.

Broadband Shield has a number of features that might endear it to Prime Minister David Cameron, for whose administration the control of Internet porn has become an important goal.

Set up through a web portal accessed from the customer's account, Shield filters a range of types of content, including adult porn, suicide, self-harm, as well as malware, spyware and drive-by attacks using DNS-level filtering supplied by Symantec.

The full list of filter categories: online gaming, social networking, cyber bullying, pornography and adult, suicide and self-harm, weapons, violence, gore and hate, anonymizers, filesharing and hacking, drugs and criminal skills, dating, phishing, malware and spyware.

Because it's done at the network level (as pornwall advocates have wanted) the service will also apply to all devices using a customer's broadband connection, overcoming the limitations of device-specific software.

Sky has also made it clear that existing customers won't be able to simply ignore Broadband Shield's existence indefinitely.

"Sky Broadband customers will be asked to make an active choice about the filters when getting online with Sky for the first time, or when they upgrade their routers," said communications products brand director, Lyssa McGowan. "Next year, we will ensure that all customers will have made a choice about whether or not to apply whole-home filters."

So users not wishing to use any filtering will eventually have to make that preference explicit, which will upset free speech advocates that have argued that content filtering risks embarrassing consumers into a creeping censorship across a range of topics in addition to porn.

Sky's answer to this sensitivity is to make it possible for people to set the service up using a movie-style ratings system.

"To make things simpler still, we're providing customers with the option of filtering websites by age, with the categories organised by age banding. Customers can choose from settings which they'll be familiar with from the way movies are classified - i.e. 'PG' (under 13s), '13' (13 and over), and '18' (adults only)," said McGowan.

Uncertainties remain - how does Sky or Symantec decide what content fits into each rating category given that URLs can't always be individually assessed? How effective will blocking be for content when it is being accessed from within approved websites, for example violent content viewed on Facebook?

Will the filtering also be clever enough to block obvious workarounds such as proxying services? These services are on the blocked category list but keeping up with new ones looks like an obvious weakness.

Stopping filtering would involve turning the service off completely, in which case anti-malware would also be disabled, Sky said. However, customers could also add specific websites to their block/unblock lists.

According to digital advocacy group, the Open Rights Group, at least Sky has been open with critics of filtering, sending answers to a number of concerns it had raised with them since the idea was first floated earlier this year. The ORG is especially concerned that entirely legitimate websites might fall foul of aver-zealous filtering and have no easy redress to get themselves reinstated.

Currently, this will involve complaining to Sky itself, or other ISPs as and when they implement their own filtering systems.

"We want more information about how ISPs will make sure website owners can check if their sites are blocked, and how they can quickly and easily get their sites off the block lists," said the ORG's Peter Bradwell.

"One of our motivations for asking these questions is that it seems the Government are not doing so. They seem far more interested in easy win headlines than preventing widespread over-blocking by the systems they are mandating," he said.

In an answer given to the ORG, Sky did say it would not monitor Internet access that linked customers to websites visited or log blocking events.

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