There has been many thousands of words published online about the problems with parental controls but with BBC Newsnight featuring the problems of controls over-blocking and letting some sites slip through they have brought the debate outside of the tech circle and blocking campaigner camps to a wider audience.
We have said in the past that a total reliance on the filters to block porn to ensure that teenagers cannot access it and younger children do not stumble across it is the wrong way to go, there is still the need to parents to communicate and teach their children to cope with the wider world. This item on Newsnight highlights the fact that while the majority of content is blocked when parents choose to turn on the filter (existing customers) or for new customers who do nothing and the filters are on by default; if minors are left alone they will probably find what they are looking for. The other danger is that parents who believe the filters are creating a safe babysitter style Internet may allow their children to spend ever increasing time online to the detriment of other real world activity.
For the small online business the issue of over blocking can be significant, imagine a small online shop that sells a range of goods and gets blocked, if its just one major providers blocking system it may not notice and simply think there has been a 20% downturn in orders. If this goes unnoticed and customers do not contact the firm and new customers will tend to just move onto another provider under the false conclusion this business may be a little dodgy; then the blocking could lead to the lose of jobs or a business folding.
The most worrying aspect is that sexual health websites are being blocked and for households where parents have children of varying ages, the older sixteen year old may find information sites blocked and not feel able to talk to parents. This becomes even more of a concern when it comes to support sites for self-harm and suicide, the current generation of teenagers are used to reaching out online and it may just be a matter of time until someone tries to reach out but due to blocking in their home is unable to, and the consequences of this could be very dire.
There is something positive about the current way the blocking systems operate, they are not controlled by the state, and there is no legislation covering what is and is not blocked - of course that may change in time, but legislation tends to be a blunt instrument that cannot cope with the speed of change on the Internet. The commercial operators will hopefully listen to complaints about their individual systems and ensure that where sites are blocked that a suitable page is returned complete with information on who to contact if this is thought to be a false block. The issue of not blocking all sites in a category is simply one of resources from the handful of firms that produce the blocking lists and the rate at which new sites join the Internet.
Hopefully the £25 million publicity campaign about the filters will ensure that parents understand the limits to the usefulness of the filters. Making it very clear that the filters are not a total solution is also key to the mobile and fixed broadband operators avoiding legal action due to the blocking of sites incorrectly, or a parent who was outraged when some hardcore porn slipped through the net.
You can catch the Newsnight episode on iPlayer or watch it online here.