There’s a report in today’s Sunday Times that ISP TalkTalk is planning to offer an “adult” filter to all its customers. The “HomeSafe” system will, according to the report, block websites that are considered unsuitable for the under-18s. That isn’t just porn, but also includes self-harm, drugs and violence. Other major consumer ISPs, such as BT, are working on their own systems but don’t have them ready yet.
I don’t have any problem with that. I’ve said before that if ISPs want to offer a network-side filter to their customers then that’s a perfectly valid commercial decision. It’s legislating to make it compulsory that I object to.
What’s interesting about today’s report, though, is that a spokesman from TalkTalk is quoted as saying that offering filters to new customers has increased customer retention. It seems that their customers do want them, and are more likely to stay with TalkTalk if they’ve got them. That’s why they’re now rolling it out to everyone who wants it.
Assuming that to be true (and I have no reason to think otherwise), though, that makes compulsion even less valid. If customers want filters, and consumer ISPs offer them in response to demand, then there’s no need to legislate to force ISPs to offer them.
It also gives the lie to two other common claims made by pro-compulsion campaigners: that ISPs are irresponsible and parents don’t care, and the only solution to both of those is legislation. In reality, a lot of parents do care about what their children are accessing on the Internet, and will choose to use a system which does screen out the worst of it if that option is available. And ISPs are responsive to consumer demand, so they’re choosing to offer that to their customers.
What that means is that people who want filtered Internet access can choose an ISP which offers it and choose to have filtering enabled, while those who neither want nor need it can either choose to switch it off or go to an ISP which doesn’t offer it. A free competitive market is working, and worked precisely as intended. Some of the pro-compulsion campaigners in the Conservative Party might like to reflect on that, and consider how out of step they are not just with public opinion but also with the traditional anti-state-interference ethos of the Tories.