We believe that our customers should be free to choose what legal content is accessible in their home and decide how best to keep their children safe online. We don’t apply these controls by default. Instead we’ve invested significantly in processes to contact our customers so they understand their options and choose what, if any, filtering they’d like to apply. Customers can apply BT Parental Controls to any internet enabled device in their home.
What type of sites can be blocked?
BT Parental Controls give our customers the flexibility to decide which sites they want to block. We offer three pre-defined filtering levels – light, moderate or strict. The categories of content that get blocked vary according to the filtering level chosen.
We also offer a custom filtering level that lets customers choose which content categories to filter. They can then further personalise the filters, for example, by setting the time of day they’re active or for parents to override the filters on a temporary basis or for a specific site in a category which a customer has chosen to filter. We give them the option to make their own choices. There’s more information on the BT Parental Controls help pages.13
In very limited circumstances we put sites - like ChildLine - on a ‘white list’. That means even a parent can’t block access to them. We think this is vital to protect vulnerable children.
What’s “unavoidable active choice”? Why do we support customers’ active choice for BT Parental Controls rather than just turning them on by default for all customers?
Active choice for home-based parental controls is an approach that gives customers the maximum control over the content they access. It engages parents to make sure they actively consider the issue of online safety, which is a much broader issue than the mere application of filters. Over the past year we’ve invested to make sure our customer base has been asked whether or not they’d like to activate filters. An email verification of their choice is automatically sent to the account holder to confirm their decision.
People should actively consider the use of filters as well as the broad range of online safety issues and not have important decisions about their family’s access to online content made for them. That’s why we decided not to just apply our parental controls by default.
We also have concerns that it would be disproportionate to apply filtering by default to all of our customers.
Since only around 25 per cent of our consumer broadband customers live in households with children, it would mean the remaining 75 per cent would be treated like they needed protection from a whole array of online content.
Ofcom research14 has highlighted that many parents choose not to apply filters – with many saying they prefer to use other ways to manage what their children see online. That said, we know that over a third of our broadband customers in households with children have chosen to use them. In fact, the percentage could be as much as 60 per cent when we include those customers who take our Net Protect product, which is a filtering tool and also blocks harmful traffic.
It would have been far cheaper and easier to simply switch on BT Parental Controls for all of our customers, but we think best practice is to let customers choose what’s right for them and their family, even if at times that approach has meant more cost and effort for us.
In December 2013 we started a programme to contact all existing customers individually to make sure they engaged in the issues and made their own (unavoidable)15 active choice about whether or not they wanted to apply the filters. By January 2015 all our customers had made their decision. Since then all new customers have to choose whether they want the filters when they first set up our broadband service and we proactively give the customer going through the set-up the information they need to make that choice.
Moreover, whilst parental controls are undoubtedly important, they are not a complete safeguard for children and certainly no substitute for education and awareness. Parents need to be actively involved in talking to their children about staying safe online and agreeing how they use the internet and social media. We think applying parental control filters by default does not encourage that proactive approach. To keep parents informed about online safety we helped set up Internet Matters in May 2014.16
In 2016, a new EU law (the Net Neutrality Regulation) will come into force. This will make sure that, subject to some limited exceptions, EU citizens will be able to access whatever online content and services they want, without any discrimination or interference. Government might then need to introduce national legislation to let communications providers carry on offering parental controls (or any similar tools). We would support the introduction of a new statutory framework to remove the possibility of a challenge to the current voluntary scheme.
How do we choose the categories for our parental controls?
We talk with various stakeholders – parent groups, government, other communications providers and customers - about how we categorise, as there are no specific rules or guidelines that say how we should approach it.
We aim to be consistent and non-discriminatory at all times and, in keeping with our commitment to an open internet, we see blocking access to content as the exception, not the rule. We use expert third party companies which create the categories and review them frequently to make sure all sites are categorised appropriately.
Given the fast-paced nature of the internet, there are a small number of sites that sometimes may be blocked incorrectly (“over-blocked”) and need to be re-categorised. We have a dedicated email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) that our consumer customers can use to report any queries.
If we get a complaint that a site has been incorrectly blocked, we’ll work with our specialist filtering supplier to review the site and provide a response as quickly as possible, but no longer than seven days. On the few occasions where the person raising the query has questioned the decision, we’ve held a detailed joint review of the site to reach the final outcome.
Between December 2013 and December 2014, we got 609 reports that sites were wrongly categorised. Following investigation, 26 per cent of them were re-categorised and the rest stayed the same. That’s a very small rate of reported incorrectly blocked sites given that in the same period the ‘this site is blocked’ message was shown (on average) 17,000 times a day.
Do parental controls impact free expression?
The concept of restricting access to what children can see isn’t new – it’s existed for film, video and television content for many years, like age restrictions and the ’watershed’ hour.
We note the Government’s proposals to introduce mechanisms to restrict under 18s’ access to pornographic websites and agree that what’s illegal offline should also be illegal online. Measures to tackle the problem should be carefully targeted to make sure that only the sites in question are subject to appropriate controls, and that any unintended blocking of legal material for children and adults is minimised.
What happens if someone attempts to access a site blocked by parental controls?
They’ll see a web page message that tells them the site is blocked because BT Parental Controls are on. The message confirms the site they’re trying to access and the filter level that’s been picked. It looks like this:
What are the categories and what sort of sites go in them?
The different categories, and the type of site which might go in them, are set out below. Because of the nature of the categories, some of the sites we block under the different categories might also include material which could be unlawful. Find out more here. This is how we allocate the categories across the different filter levels. But there’s always the choice to allow a particular category or even a specific website within a chosen filter level.
Do we limit access to online material outside the home?
Our consumer broadband customers can use BT Parental Controls to make their choice about what content is available in their househould. Those choices will automatically be applied when they access the internet outside the home in the UK if they log in to the BT Wi-fi service using their BT ID.
Of course people can also access the internet when they’re outside their home using other public wi-fi services in shops, cafes and travel hubs. The BT Wi-fi service offers commercial public wi-fi services to businesses which might be in charge of those types of premises.
When we do that, we make it clear in our terms and conditions with those businesses that we automatically block access to adult pornographic content. We do that because we think there’s a risk that children, unsupervised by adults in those public places, could end up seeing this material. But, under the terms and conditions, our site-partners can ask us to unblock access to that content as they’re more familiar with the way the service will be used, and the associated risks. The settings chosen by those businesses are prioritised over any parental control choices made by an individual user accessing that public wi-fi service using their BT ID.
We don’t automatically block access to any content when we provide BT Wi-fi as a part of our business broadband services. That’s because this service is designed to be used on business premises where we wouldn’t expect children to be present. The person signing up for the service must be over 18. If that business does share the use of their wi-fi with people coming on to their premises, we ask them to take responsibility for any filtering of online content.
We’re also an associate signatory to the UK Code of Practice for the Self-Regulation of Content on Mobiles. This means we support and comply with the code’s requirements which cover, among other things, the filtering of content classified as 18+ behind access controls requiring age verification.
BT has a strong history of commitment to improving online child safety
15 We used different methods, including emails and web browser messages to make sure customers were faced with an unavoidable choice and had to choose between having BT Parental Controls switched on or off.
16 BT worked with other communications providers to create Internet Matters which is an organisation with three goals: to promote awareness of parental controls; to encourage parents to stay up-to-date about online safety; to promote discussion with young people about staying safe online.