Today, one of the UK’s leading Internet service providers unveiled a new system it believes will enhance the safety of families online. HomeSafe from TalkTalk is a network-level blocklist product which offers three key features.
Firstly it offers ‘Virus Alerts’ which blocks sites (or even individual sections of sites) known to be infected with malware before they can even reach a customer’s browser.
Next up is ‘Homework Time’, a feature which allows parents to grant kids access to the Internet for educational purposes, but stops them in their tracks should they attempt to become distracted by social networking sites such as Facebook.
The third category, known as KidsSafe, offers parents a set of controls to stop their kids (or indeed anyone else using a TalkTalk Internet connection) from accessing violent, pornographic or gambling content.
HomeSafe goes about its business transparently by scanning the websites accessed by TalkTalk customers, assessing the security risk and applying filtering according to customer preferences. The company is assuring its subscribers that it stores no personal information such as IP addresses.
However, TorrentFreak has learned that it also has another trick up its sleeve – the option to block BitTorrent and other file-sharing related sites. We spoke with TalkTalk’s (always helpful) PR company in order to try and obtain a list of sites currently under blockade but we were told that one isn’t available. Of course one does exist, we just aren’t being given access to it.
What we have discovered is that HomeSafe only filters web browsing. This means that while, for example, The Pirate Bay might be blocked, if users can access the torrents from elsewhere (from a non-blocked site or via email or IM using a friend as a proxy) then the actual BitTorrent transfers will complete just fine.
Nevertheless, getting this far could be tricky for new followers of the file-sharing craze since sites where users can download file-sharing software are also being blocked when HomeSafe is asked to do so.
TalkTalk are stressing that HomeSafe is completely optional and is disabled by default and of course that is the right approach. However, while there is a clear need not to further publicize the URLs of certain sexually abusive sites which have no other purpose than to exploit, the same cannot be said about file-sharing sites and services.
TalkTalk admits that HomeSafe isn’t an all-in-one silver bullet and as we have seen, its BitTorrent blocks can be circumvented with relative ease. But as it stands we don’t know which sites are blocked, or why, or who made that decision. If parents are being trusted to know what to censor for the benefit of their children, they need to make an informed decision and in order to do that there needs to be a level of transparency from TalkTalk.
From our enquiries, that does not appear to be forthcoming, at least for now. So, if you’re a TalkTalk customer, head over to your control panel, turn the file-sharing ban controls up to 11 and start testing the big BitTorrent sites, uTorrent.com, Vuze.com, and others like RapidShare and MegaUpload. We’d love to hear about the results of your tests, backed up with screenshots if at all possible.
Update: Well, well. It seems that our call for transparency fell a little closer to home than we expected. According to a kind TorrentFreak reader who just sent us in some screenshots, not only is isohunt.com, thepiratebay.org and newzbin.com blocked by HomeSafe but also……
We’ll speak to TalkTalk about this and post an update.