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Downing Street and UK ISPs split over child Internet safety exposed by leaked letter

The extent to which the government wishes to dictate new child Internet safety functions used by the UK's four biggest ISPs has been revealed through a leaked letter.

Sent by the Department of Education but including demands from Downing Street, the letter urges companies to act quickly so the Prime Minister can make a snap announcement. The text was handed to the BBC (opens in new tab) by an employee of one of the ISPs.

As a part of the requests, the government wants BT, Virgin, Sky and TalkTalk to announce that they will be forcing every household with a broadband connection to "opt-out" of installing parental filters by the end of the year.

A system which meets Downing Street's criteria is soon to be trialled by TalkTalk's "browser intercept". Under the system, broadband users will be made to choose between selecting the pre-ticked option of activating parental controls, configuring their own settings, or turning filters off completely.

The first demand is nothing new. However, the companies are particularly upset by the appearance that some of the requests are geared towards allowing David Cameron to announce the changes using the language of Downing Street's choice.

The government wants the ISPs to change the wording used for the new parental Internet controls from "active-choice+" to "default-on", claiming that this would be a "simplified message to reassure parents and the public more generally," without changing what is being offered.

"The prime minister would like to be able to refer to your solutions [as] "default-on" as people will have to make a choice not to have the filters (by unticking the box)," the letter reads.

"What this is about is allowing the government and certain papers to declare a victory," one industry source told the BBC.

A person from another ISP told the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones that this request is "staggering", and added that switching from the active-choice+ branding to default-on would be "misleading and potentially harmful."

Another said: "It makes parents complacent - if you tell them the filter is switched on by default, they get a false sense of security. We want parents to make informed choices about the way their children use the internet."

Number 10 is also asking the Internet providers to commit to funding a yet "unknown" awareness campaign, and indicate how much they will be pledging - something the companies are reportedly not particularly happy about either.

Cameron stepped up the pressure on Internet and search engine providers (opens in new tab) following the revelation that Mark Bridger, the killer of five-year-old April Jones, had downloaded child pornography from the Internet.

"Internet companies and search engines make their living by trawling and categorising the web. So I call on them to use their extraordinary technical abilities to do more to root out these disgusting images."

"The time for excuses and blame is over - we must all work together," he said in June.

Image credit: Flickr (World Economic Forum (opens in new tab))

Tomas is co-founder of Lucky Pilgrim, a team of journalists, photographers and art directors who connect brands to audiences through words, imagery and design. He was formerly editorial director at Chapel and managing editor at Courier magazine, and was a writer for ITProPortal as well as The Independent, EastLondonLines, The Sunday Times Magazine, and Croon.