The UK’s domestic internet access market is dominated by four companies – BT with 7.8 million subscribers, Sky has 5.7 million, Talk Talk 4 million and Virgin 4.6 million. Between them they account for over 90% of all British households with broadband.
On 22nd July, 2013 Prime Minister Cameron announced that the UK’s “Big Four” had agreed to deploy child protection filters at network level and to do it in such a way as to ensure that their customers would be faced with an “unavoidable choice” i.e. they would have to decide whether or not they wanted to use the filters being offered.
Obviously there was no suggestion that the filters should be compulsory. All that was required was a yes or no decision. Those who answered yes then had an option to configure the filters in different ways and at any time from then on the filters could be modified or abandoned altogether
I stand ready to be corrected on this but because each ISP has such a large customer base it is hard to imagine that the views and values of Talk Talk’s 4 million are going to be radically different from those of Sky’s, BT’s or Virgin’s and vice versa.
Thus, accepting that the words the ISPs agreed in 2013 were clear enough, you would think each ISP’s customers would respond in broadly similar ways and proportions. Any differences ought to be marginal and be explained by reference to the efficiency with which the different companies executed the communications end of the mission.
That is not what happened. There were significant differences in the outcomes.
On 16th December, 2015 Ofcom reported on the results of the initiative.
At paragraph 1.13 we see that at the end of June, 2015, only 6% of BT’s customers had taken up the network filters being offered. This contrasted with 12.4% with Virgin and 14.0% with Talk Talk. Sky were way ahead at 30-40% but are now reporting that 62% of their customer base are using the filters and that does not include those who only use the anti-phishing and malware protection tools that are part of the total package.
During the trial period Sky had shifted to “default-on” i.e. unless and until the customer indicated their decision the filters were applied. Note that at 62% this suggests many more households are using filters than have children under the age of 18. Interesting.
When Sky made the switch to default-on did they experience a huge loss of subscribers? Were their call centres overwhelmed with angry or confused customers? Had customers just not realised the filters were now in place? Apparently the answer to each of these questions is no. So confident are Sky that their approach is working well they announced that henceforth, beginning in 2016, they intend to make default on the norm for everyone. Bravo Sky. Their muscular determination to make the policy work and deliver on their promise is to be applauded.
Can self-regulation really be that flexible?
In compiling the report Ofcom did exactly what was asked of them by the government. They had no legal authority to do more. But the truth remains that Ofcom compiled the report largely by just asking the ISPs to account for themselves. They did not verify or explore what the ISPs told them so, for now at least, we must take everything at face value.
I do not think this is satisfactory or sustainable in the longer run. I say this not least because if four big companies acting in good faith can interpret a small number of words in ways which produce such strikingly different results then it makes you wonder about the whole shooting match.
Does “self-regulation” really mean “do as you please and as long as you seem to be doing something we won’t trouble you?”
Can self-regulation really be that “flexible”? The argument for a statutory regulator with the power to probe and a duty to explain to the public has been strengthened by this otherwise welcome exercise.