Not that long ago, TalkTalk launched its HomeSave content filtering service to help parents keep their children safe online. Today, BT, Sky and Virgin Media are poised to join them by offering customers a similar service to block adult content.
Blocking of adult content has been possible for many years through the use of software installed on computers, however this requires parents to be knowledgable enough to do so. This type of solution also only protects the computers on which the software is installed, leaving games consoles, mobile phones, tablets and any other computers unprotected. Today's announcement means that the vast majority of broadband connections will come with an easy way to block adult content, a feature welcomed by many parents, but which will also concern some parties.
To some extent this move is perhaps indicative of the industry trying to head off more stringent measures that have beeb demanded by some politicians. The head of the Mothers' Union, Reg Bailey is due to meet the Prime Minister to discuss a review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of children in the media. Further proposals include restrictions on steamy pop videos and modesty sleeves for magazines that feature sexualised images.
The danger now is how well can providers implement these filters and how long it takes before providers are in trouble for allowing a site with adult content to slip through the system, or indeed accidentally block sites that have no adult content. The systems needs to be open to review to ensure that allegations of censorship can be looked into. Parent Port is being set up to enforce standards across media in terms of protecting children and will eventually accept reports of inappropriate content.
Technically the dynamic nature of the internet makes filtering a wide target—a news website that occasionally covers adult topics may be perfectly child safe for six weeks, but one news story with 'saucy' content might see a specific page being blocked. Certainly domain level blocking will not work, and even URL based blocking is far from perfect. Add to this the simple fact that teenagers are very enterprising and given a computer in their bedroom will spend hours finding out how to circumvent blocks. For younger children this is less of an issue, since like book reading, using the Internet should be a joint adult/child activity.
A key point is that the filtering appears not to just be pornography, but a wide variety of adult content, and we presume this includes things like 18+ video games. If the filters simply address sexual content, and not violent content, then we run the risk of creating a generation that sees violence as ok, but sexual acts between adults as abhorrent.
Very little detail is available on how the filters will actually work at this time. We presume that households with a mixture of children in them will be able to adjust the level of control at any time of the day. Any system that is too hard to control will result in people ignoring or misunderstanding it, and then before you know it, the school playground gossip is that "so and so's house" has naughty internet access.
The effort by the industry should be commended for trying to help parents get back some of the control over how their kids use the Internet, but parents should be under no illusion—their responsibility for ensuring their children use the Internet appropriately does not end by switching on this content filter.