UK ISPs and the ‘Unavoidable Decision’

FilterChoiceLONDON – UK ISPs allegedly are hijacking consumers’ web browsers in an effort to comply with a government mandate that consumers opt in or out of content filters. If users refuse to commit, they may be unable to browse the internet at all.

As part of the regulatory reforms he pushed for last year, Prime Minister David Cameron’s conservative government insisted ISPs present their customers with an “unavoidable decision” concerning the installation of content filters on their accounts. Cameron set Dec. 31, 2014 as the deadline by which ISPs must comply.

“We are not prescribing how the ISPs should contact their customers,” Cameron said at the time. “It’s up to them to find their own technological solutions. But however they do it, there will be no escaping this decision, no ‘remind me later’ and then it never gets done.”

Left to their own devices, some UK ISPs have chosen to hijack their customers’ browsers. It’s a technique that certainly makes the choice “unavoidable,” but isn’t without its weaknesses—or its critics.

Each of the ISPs—Sky, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and BT—has its own version of the message presenting the filter choice. In BT’s case, users are blocked from visiting any site until they’ve made a choice.

“If customers do not make a decision, they are unable to continue browsing,” a statement issued by the company noted. “The message will remain until the customer makes a decision.”

If a user elects not to filter his content, he is redirected to a confirmation page where he must affirm the choice. Thereafter, the message is not displayed. BT notes the company is not forcing or even encouraging users to adopt the filters, but rather insisting they make the choice as dictated by the government.

Still, critics like the Open Rights Group (ORG) complain the hijack approach is equal parts heavy-handed, unnecessary and unwise.

“How can a customer tell the difference between an ISP hijack and a phishing site made to look the same?” an ORG spokesperson asked. “There are better ways for ISPs to contact their customers, particularly given that they have our phone numbers, email and actual addresses.”

The other question raised by presenting the choice in a browser is whether the user making the decision might be the very sort of person the filters are designed to “protect.” Absent some means of confirming the identity of the person operating the computer or mobile device at the moment, curious minors could easily (and ironically) prevent their parents from being presented with the option to install the filters.

The rollout and notification method for the content filters is far from the most controversial aspect of Cameron’s campaign to selectively and voluntarily sanitize the internet for the protection of the British public. Laurie Penny of The Guardian characterized the campaign as the beinning of “censorship creep,” noting the infamous over-inclusiveness of internet content filters.

Not all UK ISPs are on board with Cameron’s filtration plan, much less the demand to make the filtration choice unavoidable. As stated on the company’s website, Andrews & Arnold provides users with an “active choice” of its own unique styling.

“The government wants us to offer filtering as an option, so we offer an active choice when you sign up,” the company’s websites states. “You choose one of two options: unfiltered internet access—no filtering of any content within the A&A network [and] you are responsible for any filtering in your own network—or censored internet access—restricted access to unpublished government mandated filter list (plus Daily Mail web site)—but still cannot guarantee kids don’t access porn. If you choose censored you are advised: Sorry, for a censored internet you will have to pick a different ISP or move to North Korea. Our services are all unfiltered.”

The A&A policy explanation is followed by a defiant question for the man whose campaign it responds to: “Is that a good enough active choice for you Mr. Cameron?”

YNOT Europe doubts that’s what Mr. Cameron had in mind, but it works for us.

 

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Anna Cahnda

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