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UPD2 Big UK ISPs to Give Parents an Option to Block Adult Content During Signup

Posted: 11th Oct, 2011 By: MarkJ
parliamentuk department for educationFour of the country's largest broadband ISPs ( BT , TalkTalk , Virgin Media and Sky Broadband ) have agreed to provide new customers (i.e. parents) with an option to block adult web content as part of their subscription process (i.e. "a choice at the point of purchase"). The move is supported by the UK governments Department for Education (DfE).

The idea was first recommended by the CEO of Mothers Union, Reg Bailey, as part of his June 2011 review into the sexualisation of children - 'Letting Children be Children'. The review stopped short of recommending a mandatory ISP filter for related online content, although Bailey did suggest that regulation should be imposed if, after 18 months, progress remained "insufficient" (here).

The Bailey Review (Sample Quote)

We see filters as a hugely important tool and we would like to see manufacturers, retailers, internet service providers (ISPs) and others adopt an approach that is much more supportive of parents. ... It is not acceptable to expect parents to be solely responsible for what their children see online, and industry must take greater responsibility.

According to the BBC News, David Cameron (Prime Minister) is due to meet industry representatives to discuss the governments concerns over child safety online. Cameron will also launch a new website - Parentport (not yet fully online) - to help parents report "inappropriate" content. Parentport is run by the UK's media regulators and aims to "set and enforce standards across the media to protect children from inappropriate material".

The UK Parliament's official inquiry into child safety online, which is being run by the outspoken Claire Perry (Conservative MP for Wiltshire), is also due to release its final report next month. Last year Perry called upon all UK ISPs to implement an automatic universal block of internet porn sites via an age restricted opt-in system (here). However there are some concerns over this approach.

Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group (ORG), cautioned:

"There is a world of difference between offering sensible child safety, and trying to persuade adults to live with layers of censorship.

The devil is therefore in the detail, and how "options" are presented. Will adults be asked if they need parental controls, or if they want to switch adult content on? We will oppose anything designed to induce adults to live with "censorware" which would inevitably deny them access to commentary, health and medical advice."

Bailey's own review admits that "filters are not completely effective"; indeed most modern children could easily circumvent them via any number of simple methods. The review also suggested that Perry's idea to impose "a robust means of age verification" upon online content could be difficult, which is perhaps an understatement.

It's worth pointing out that many ISPs already offer Parental Controls and most mobile operators also impose similar restrictions by default, all of which are easy to get around (not the operators fault, that's just how the internet works). Plenty of third party solutions also exist to do the same job.

Perhaps the biggest concern is with the threat from mission creep and the ease to which such restrictions could impact Freedom of Speech. For example, TalkTalk's similar HomeSafe service can often go too far and block perfectly legitimate journalistic content (example). Another problem could be with medical / educational content, such as the kind of pictures used by Channel 4's Embarrassing Bodies show. Who decides what is and isn't appropriate for an ISP to block?

UPDATE 1:41pm

We're learning a lot about the newly agreed Code of Practice, although it remains unclear how far the web blocking itself will go. The ISPs merely claim that customers are to be provided with "an active choice as to whether to activate parental controls in the home" (i.e. during signup for new customers and via a notification message for existing users).

Dido Harding, TalkTalk CEO, said:

"We believe in safe broadband, affordable for all. All parents should have the ability to block undesirable content and, crucially, they should not have to pay a premium to do so. We offer HomeSafe for free to all customers and since we launched we have blocked 1 million websites at our customers’ request.

We hope to see other ISPs follow TalkTalk’s lead and offer new and effective parental controls like HomeSafe. We are pleased to see Government’s continuing commitment to helping parents understand the opportunities and risks of the internet. Internet safety should be taken as seriously as road safety."

So far it doesn't sound as if ISPs will actually be offering anything radically new, except for making the availability of such features that much more obvious. Hopefully the blocking will not be enabled by default (opt-in) and customers will retain some degree of control over it (on or off etc.).

The real danger is that some parents might enable such features and then incorrectly assume that the internet is now safe.

UPDATE 1:23pm

BT has kindly informed ISPreview.co.uk more about what this will mean after we put a series of common concerns to them (here).
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