Filters in the UK


No one I know argues filters are a silver bullet that solves all of the problems modern parents have to think about when trying to decide what to do for the best with regards to their children’s online lives.

Yet there is no doubt filters can play a part in the home as an aid to parenting, particularly if there are younger children around. In this context typically filters help parents keep age inappropriate content off their children’s screens. Hard core pornography is often mentioned as a key concern but it is by no means the only sort of content parents care about. However, behavioural challenges such as bullying, ripping off copyright protected material and so on generally are not within the ambit of most filters.

Outside of the home filters can be deployed by a range of organizations to help prevent certain types of materials being visible in places where they would not be appropriate. In addition filtering techniques can be used to limit access to illegal material across the piece, specifically child abuse images, sometimes referred to as child pornography.

In the UK filters are used in each of these ways.

This blog is an update on the current state of play in relation to:

  1. What large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do for the family market
  2. What WiFi providers do in public spaces
  3. What mobile phone network operators do for all their customers

Special provisions apply to child abuse images.

Taking them in reverse order, because it is easier

Dealing with child abuse images

All ISPs, mobile phone networks and WiFi providers block access to all urls known to contain child abuse images. The filter cannot be lifted or modified by the end user. The list of relevant urls is provided by the IWF. This policy started in 2004.

Mobile phone networks’ approach to filtering

All of the UK’s mobile phone networks apply an adult content filter by default. What is “adult content” is determined by a framework provided by the British Board of Film Classification.  It covers pornography, violence as well as one or two other categories.

This filter can be removed by the user completing a robust age verification check. The filter is either all on or all off. No one ever has to specify what type of adult content they are interested in accessing. This policy began in 2005.

WiFi providers

Last year all of the major WiFi providers in the UK agreed to introduce filters to block access to pornography web sites in any public places where children and young people are likely to be found on a regular basis. There are a range of venues, therefore, where such filters will not be routinely applied e.g. casinos, nightclubs and military bases.

Some of the WiFi providers also block access to other types of adult sites, rather like the mobile networks do. McDonald’s was an early adopter of “porn free” WiFi. Starbucks and many other well known High Street chains do likewise.

WiFi filters deployed in this way in public spaces cannot be lifted or modified by end users.

Internet Service Providers

No cost or low cost filters have been around for parents to use practically since the day the worldwide web first appeared. The UK’s four largest ISPs –BT, Virgin, Sky, and TalkTalk- have provided free filters to their customers for several years. Recently the Big Four announced they would introduce a new system to make it easier for families to use them if they so wanted. Between them the Big Four ISPs have in the region of 90%-95% of the UK’s home broadband market.

Their measures do not touch or concern business users.

The only thing you have to do is decide

The filters the ISPs provide are not turned on by default. What there is is an unavoidable requirement to indicate whether or not you want to use them. The yes option is “pre-ticked”. The whole thing can be completed in a couple of clicks of a mouse.

The ISPs are doing it their own way but there are similarities: each offers options going from no filtering at all through to strict filtering of a broad range of adult content, with different points in between depending on the company.

All Big Four ISPs have chosen a Whole Home solution. The filters work on the network so all devices in the home are caught. This avoids parents having to configure every device that connects through the WiFi router.


The ISPs’ offering provides parents with the possibility of customizing the filters to suit the family’s cultural or religious background. At least one ISP – BT – has whitelisted a number of children’s help sites so even if they wanted to parents could not block access to them using the filters they have provided.

Parents kept informed

The details of all decisions about the initial set up of the filters and any subsequent changes made to them are put in an email which goes to the principal account holder.

No legal or regulatory compulsion

There are no laws or regulations requiring anybody to block access to child abuse images, or obliging WiFi providers or the mobile phone networks to do what they do as set out above. It’s the same with the ISPs. Their initiative is entirely voluntary although there is no doubt that in relation to the way in which their free filters are now presented, the ISPs were greatly encouraged to move in this direction by the government and a range of civil society organizations.

For three of the four ISPs their new way of presenting the filters is already operational. The fourth (Virgin) is a little way behind but not far.

At the moment the ISPs’ offering applies to new customers. Existing customers will be asked to make a choice about using the filters before the end of this calendar year but no one has to wait to be asked. They can move over as soon as they want.

Not all ISPs will follow suit

There is no doubt some other ISPs will choose not to join in with or copy the actions of their larger counterparts. As a result there will always be scope for anyone who disagrees with one of the Big Four’s approach to go elsewhere.

Major promotional and information campaign

On top of their individual communications with their own customers, the Big Four ISPs are jointly funding a £25million public awareness campaign. Parents are a major target group. The aim will be to raise their awareness of the importance of internet safety and encourage them to engage actively with their children’s online lives. The campaign will provide signposts to advice, guidance and best practice. Importantly it will also include information about how filters can help, what they can do and, just as vital, what they can’t.

Every new system has glitches

As with every major roll out there have been a few initial glitches. Some of the filters had incorrectly classified and therefore blocked good sites which children should be able to access. A special working party has been established to ensure such over-blocking is kept to an absolute minimum although it is undeniable there will always be a risk of some.

The ISPs have systems to allow anyone to appeal against a classification decision to get it swiftly remedied and, as already mentioned, the customization facility in any event also allows for individual sites to be added.

Research evidence

A few weeks ago Ofcom, the UK’s independent telecoms regulator, published the results of research into parental attitudes towards online safety.

Ofcom found parents saying (section 8) the whole business of setting up filters was too daunting. This group in particular will benefit from the new approach.

Worryingly between 1 in 6 and 1 in 7 parents (15%, para 1.12) acknowledged they did nothing to help their children stay safe online.

To be clear about that: doing nothing meant the parents concerned did not talk to their children about online safety, they did not check their browsing history or use safe search tools in the browser, neither did they use filters.

15% is too high a proportion to ignore. Whatever we have been doing up to now has not been working well enough. In that context what the UK’s ISPs are attempting with the new filtering initiative is innovative. We’ll see how the experiment pans out.

Defeating the filters

Can any and all of these measures be defeated by super smart kids who want to find a way around? This is often said but what evidence we have here is not many do. In the Ofcom survey (see para 5.37) only 18% of 12-15 year olds said they knew how to beat filters and just 6% said they actually had done so in the past 12 months.

3 and 4 year olds online

Bear in mind also that on the last reckoning 37% of 3-4 year olds were going online. 28% of children in that age range now have their own tablet (Ofcom survey para 5.5). When dealing with children of that age the idea that media literacy is the only or sole answer rapidly breaks down.

This is also about setting, then reinforcing rules and standards

Parents set rules and standards for their children in all areas of their lives. When it comes to the internet filters are simply a way of helping to reinforce or underpin those rules and standards in an environment where parents cannot always be physically or virtually present. In homes with younger children this may be particularly helpful. As children get older parents have to start loosening the reins as their trust and confidence in their ability to deal with a wide range of things begins to grow.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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