The Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection has concluded, and the full PDF document is now available for reading, and should be required reading for anyone working in the internet industry, from those producing content to those writing operating systems for devices that connect to the internet.
"Our Inquiry found that many children are easily accessing internet pornography as well as other websites showing extreme violence or promoting self-harm and anorexia. This is hugely worrying. While parents should be responsible for their children's online safety, in practice people find it difficult to put content filters on the plethora of internet-enabled devices in their homes, plus families lack the right information and education on internet safety. It's time that Britain's Internet Service Providers, who make more than £3 billion a year from selling internet access services, took on more of the responsibility to keep children safe, and the Government needs to send a strong message that this is what we all expect".Claire Perry, MP for Devizes, Chair of the Inquiry
If you have made it this far in the article, and want to know more about the options and software available to control access on different devices, we would suggest heading over to www.getsafeonline.org which provides a wide range of advice on internet safety.
So that not everyone has to do the sums, the £3 billion is not referring to profit, but rather it is the annual subscriptions from UK internet connections. The industry itself is moving towards active controls, but obviously not at the speed or level that some would like. TalkTalk has its HomeSafe system, which is easy for parents to use, but is currently a blunt instrument, meaning 16 or 17 year old children in a home are blocked just as much as an eight year old. There is the new voluntary system that the four major providers will launch called Active Choice, where new customers will be asked whether to install device-level filters as part of the sigh-up process.
The IWF system that blocks inadvertent access to child pornography is heralded as a success story, but we are sure many will agree that blocking this level of contact at network level is a lot easier and without a doubt the right thing to do. Extending the same system to something that has to monitor millions of web addresses rather than a few hundred may lead to scaling issues, and managing additions/deletions to the various categories will be a full time affair, and while for the large four providers who take in perhaps £2.7bn combined, the tail of 400+ providers sharing out the remaining £300m may find they simply have to pass on content classification list subscription costs.
The report raises the idea that the filtering may not be per device, but per user, which sounds good, as it means parents can lock down systems for younger children, while allowing teenagers more freedom. Alas this assumes that all devices have individual user logins and parents are familar with being system admins.
A question for all our readers, should twitter be an 18+ rated site? How about facebook? What about amazon.co.uk? All have them have areas suitable for children, but also have content that is distinctly adult in its nature? Adrian Kennard who is never afraid to voice his opinion, had the following to say on the issue:
"As an analogy, it is like expecting manufacturers of glasses to make a system to stop people looking at porn magazines. Technically, with an LCD shutter, GPS, accelerometer, giro (all the things found in an iPad) and a database of the location of all porn magazines on newsagents shelves, etc, it could be done, but it is the wrong way to do it! After all BT are not expected to filter what people say on a phone call in order to protect the children. The government need to realise the internet is a communications system not a content provider."Adrian Kennard, AAISP
The example of the 18+ verification is cited in the report as a template that could be extended, but we assume we are not the only people who have found sites blocked that contain no adult material and also sites that are not blocked at all when they should be.
The UK press and government is vocal about the oppression of people abroad when governments implement systems that impose a belief structure that arises from those in power. While in theory the proposals do not block material from adults, the presence of a widespread blocking system after a few years will have people thinking it is normal, and extension or abuse of the system may become too tempting. If a system is forced onto providers, we would encourage it to be distinctly separate from any IWF implementation, ensuring that the block list is open to inspection and questioning to ensure the system cannot be used censorship.
The UK Government on one hand is trying to encourage the next facebook to emerge in Shoreditch, but at the same time potential legislation like the report proposes, and examples like the recent private members bill, may do more discourage start-ups from coming to the UK.
Update 1pm: ISPA has issued a statement which highlights the commonly held opinion, that network level filtering is easy to evade, as in employ a VPN, or proxy.
"Forcing ISPs to filter adult content at the network level, which users would then have to opt out of, is neither the most effective nor most appropriate way to prevent access to inappropriate material online. It is easy to circumvent, reduces the degree of active interest and parental mediation and has clear implications for freedom of speech. Instead parents should choose how they restrict access to content, be it on the device or network level with the tools provided."Nicholas Lansman, ISPA General Secretary on Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection