Last October UK’s biggest ISPs, Virgin Media, BT, TalkTalk and Sky, signed a new Code of Practice to help parents block inappropriate online content. Coined as ‘active choice’, ISPs would assist customers though providing free tools to filter access to the internet, reminding them of blocking tools at their disposal at least once a year and promoting accessible channels for parents to report concerns.
Earlier this year, Claire Perry MP led an inquiry into online child safety stating that the UK should adopt “a network-level ‘Opt-In’ system, maintained by ISPs, that delivered a clean internet feed to customers as standard but allowed them to choose to receive adult content”. It was subsequently backed by the Daily Mail and the Government responded by launching a consultation to consider the ‘Opt-In’ system, the consultation on ‘Parental Internet Controls’ which closes on Thursday.
What is ‘Opt-In’ blocking?
The Opt-In solution effectively runs opposite to the logic of successful parental control software already in the market place which allows parents to set the level of access for their computers. ‘Opt-In’ would be a network level block installed as a standard and blocking websites automatically, which a user can only remove through contacting their ISP.
Why it is a bad idea
There are a number of reasons why ‘Opt-In’ blocking is a bad idea.
- It will overblock – There is the issue of under or over-blocking where websites such as user generated sites and small businesses risk being blocked. Opt-In blocking is already in place on mobile networks and as witnessed by Coadec earlier this year it can block websites that have no relation to harmful material. There have been a number of businesses affected by this as shown by the Open Rights Group report from May this year. Digital startups rely on web as the gateway to their service and blocking their website would definitely lead to loss of business. This is a dangerous step to take at a time when we are trying to bolster the startup environment. The passing of this legislation will be a lawyers dream, but who is going to be liable for the losses? Is Government happy to foot the bill?
- It will kill competition – It would be counteractive to pass a bill that would harm fledgling businesses at a time when Government has ambitions of positioning the UK as “one of the best places in Europe to start, finance and grow a business”. There are companies in the marketplace already working towards a safer internet for children. One of these is digital startup TwoTen, which aims to make managing internet activity as easy as plugging a box into your network – making the ‘complex’ solutions, not so complex. If this bill was to be passed companies such as TwoTen would have no place in the market and would inevitably fail.
- It will cost a lot – There is going to be an inevitable cost to both tax payers and ISPs. Government would need to build an overarching DNS platform which is an especially heavy cost when there are other companies already developing solutions. Through our conversations with ISPs we’ve found that the implementation of this system could cost them between £20-60 million. This is at a time when money would be better spent on developing our network to provide higher speeds and better broadband coverage that the Government is asking them to deliver.
- It won’t work – It’s not difficult for a child to circumvent any type of blocking as seen recently in the simplicity of bypassing the UK block on Pirate Bay. Opt-in blocking lures parents in to a false sense of security believing their children are safe online. You can then drive children into using tools such as VPNs or proxy sites where neither their parents, nor the ISPs, nor the Government can monitor what they are doing.
- It is short term – Opt-In blocking is not future proof and a very short term solution that is damaging both in the near and far future. The majority of next generation parents will be more tech savvy as the internet becomes a larger part of their lives. These parents will be able to implement what are currently seen as ‘complex’ security solutions with relative ease, but if ‘Opt-in’ network level blocks are in place it will deskill parents who have effectively passed responsibility for their children’s online safety to the ISP. Are parents not better off monitoring, educating and managing their children’s online safety?
Don’t jump the gun and give Active Choice a chance
Active Choice solutions currently being developed and implemented allow parents to manage their children’s online safety. ISPs offer different solutions providing parents a choice as to what solution best suits them and which filters they would like to apply to their Internet connections depending on what they believe is suitable for their children, not what a Government level filter system decides is suitable for them. Government plans are headlining with ‘porn’ as the driving factor, however TalkTalk reported that the “number one category parents are choosing to block is suicide and self-harm websites”.
Blanket blocking robs parents of this choice and businesses of the opportunity to provide them with choice. It will affect digital businesses and does little to stop children wantingly accessing harmful material. Providing options such as Active Choice gives the consumer a choice of whether they want to use the service provided by the ISP, or a third party solution that can be tailored per device, which in a multi-device home where children have smartphones and take them outside the home to other Internet connections, can prove more appropriate. Some of the solutions have added extras that allow parents to change details such ‘when your child is or isn’t allowed to access the internet’, to stop them logging on past their bedtime or block specific sites such as Facebook during homework time.
Moreover, an agreement voluntary commitment from ISPs to provide Active Choice options was only agreed upon just 10 months ago and given that good solutions take time to develop they should be given the opportunity to work. TalkTalk published figures 6 months after signing the Code of Practice stating 1 in 3 new customers were using their HomeSafe service and that 350,000 families were using the service, a number they want to increase to 1 million by March 2013.
To find a proper and lasting solution we need to establish what exactly the aims of the Government’s plans are. Does it want to stop a 12 year old ‘stumbling’ across adult content? The Active Choice solutions that ISPs are developing, as well as other solutions being developed by businesses such as device based filters can deliver this. But does it want to stop an under 18 year old seeking out adult content? This is not possible to prevent them doing this with a blunt technical tool. We need to understand why they are seeking to access adult content and give parents the freedom to choose how to communicate with this kids.
We will be responding to the Government consultation, and would like to hear from digital startups who are passionate about this issue. Please contact us to contribute to our response, or alternatively submit to the consultation directly here.