WiFi providers – must do better!


In the beginning there was only one way of connecting to the internet available to us, the Great Unwashed. That was over a telephone line courtesy of a dial-up modem. For most people modems were little boxes with flashing lights that one attached to something called a serial port normally round the back of a computer.  Soon modems would come fitted inside computers. Either way, the modem needed a telephone socket in a wall and some cable to bring the two together.

Immovable objects

Because of their size computers were then generally static, planted somewhere in the home, at work, in a classroom. In most domestic environments there was never any doubt about when someone was online because the phone was rendered hors de combat. You could go on the internet or make a call. You couldn’t do both at the same time.

Early iterations of portable computers were often referred to as luggables. They were heavy, expensive and, if you wanted to go online, you still needed to connect via a modem. This meant your physical manoeuvrability was limited both by the availability of a telephone socket and by the length of the lead needed to reach it.

Eventually it was possible to connect to the internet using a mobile phone as a modem but this was very clunky, unbelievably slow and the costs were usually horrendous. Mass market lift off remained stubbornly on the far horizon.

Easier to supervise

In those days there ran an argument which said parents had a comparatively easy time of it in terms of providing any necessary supervision and support to children and young people. Families tended to have only one computer. The advice was simple. Keep it in a spot where you could always see the screen, be forever vigilant and available. There was filtering software which could play a supplementary role but a lot of it was so  primitive and crude as to be almost unusable.

How well this model actually worked in practice is debatable. However, it broke down pretty comprehensively when the internet began moving about.

Slip sliding around

In the late 1990s mobile phones started to appear which could connect directly to the internet via gateways provided by the operators. No need for a computer, speeds still abysmal. You could wait half a day and pay a fortune just to get a grainy, monochrome, pixelated image of Donald Duck’s head.

Away from phones, lighter laptops broke cover and SIM card based  dongles started to replace conventional modems. Real mobility was here. The tyranny of wall sockets and wires was over but download times via mobile phones remained hugely disappointing.

It was the advent of 3G in the UK in 2003 that signaled the beginning of a new era. Data speeds on mobiles and dongles began to improve dramatically. This was just as well. Consumers’ expectations were rising, prompted by the large scale take up of broadband both at home and at work.

Speed makes it usable

The mobile phone networks appreciated the possibilities presented by faster speeds. They started promoting new content and services via their own branded channels. Vodafone Live was one of the first and became one of the best known.

Mobile phone users could now either buy or browse their own operator’s offerings or they could go scouting for alternatives on the web. Most did both as the need arose. In each environment adult content and services abounded

Major development

What happened next was absolutely crucial. The operators acknowledged that, in relation to internet access, mobility changed everything.

Part of the reason was mobile phones had become personal possessions. They were not communal or semi-communal. You didn’t share your phone with anyone, except perhaps briefly in case of an emergency. To start interfering with or examining a young person’s mobile instantly raised questions of privacy and trust. Tricky stuff in any family and many classrooms. Close supervision of internet usage is just not practical when the internet is in someone else’s pocket. Yes, education and awareness initiatives had to carry on but more was needed.

The Code

In January 2004 the UK’s mobile phone networks agreed to introduce an adult bar. This is a filter which is intended to keep certain kinds of content and services away from the handsets of anyone who is under the age of 18 or, for that matter, anyone of any age who does not want it. Pornography, gambling, dating, alcohol and tobacco head the not very large list of materials or services which are put behind the adult bar. The policy was outlined in a code to which  every network signed up. It is still in force.

In the UK the adult bar works in two ways. First it operates in relation to all content made available by the networks themselves. Any third-party wishing to partner with a mobile operator to provide content or a service in this way must agree to classify it according to the criteria set out in the code. The Independent Mobile Classification Body was created to adjudicate on any disputes as to how a particular site or service ought to be rated.

In addition, using the same categories they apply to their own channels, the operators deploy a filter at network level which can screen out similar content found on the internet. If a particular site or service disagrees with the way they have been classified there is again an appeals mechanism.

Incidentally all of the mobile networks’ filters include the list provided by the Internet Watch Foundation to block access to URLs known to contain child abuse images.

Applied by default, mostly

The adult bar is applied by default to every Pay As You Go account on every network. This is good news as overwhelmingly children and young people use Pay As You Go.

With the exception of Orange the adult bar is likewise applied by default to every monthly account. Orange say

If you’re a pay monthly customer and got your handset or changed your talk plan on or after 31 March 2010 the Orange Safeguard filter will not be on your account. This is because anyone with a pay monthly account is assumed to be over 18, having been through a credit reference process at the time of purchase.

Even though it does not say it on the web page I understand that when opening a new monthly account with Orange the vendor is meant to ask you if you intend to give it to a person under the age of 18. If the answer is yes someone is supposed to suggest the adult bar is applied. Ho hum.

Getting the bar lifted

Obviously no one can get the IWF list lifted but it is possible to have the adult bar removed from any phone. Orange aside the only thing the user has to do is prove they are over 18. Not every company goes about the age verification aspect in the same way or with the same level of efficiency but with all of them it is quick and inexpensive. It’s even easier to get the bar restored if you change your mind or if, for example, you pass on the SIM card to someone else.

Wider support outside the UK

A policy very similar to that adopted in the UK was endorsed in 2007 by mobile phone networks across Europe. This was courtesy of a self-regulatory measure which was encouraged by the European Commission. Entitled the European Framework for Safer Mobile Use by Younger Teenagers and Children it has also been embraced and promoted more widely by the mobile phone industry’s global trade association the GSMA.

I have described the history, broad support and elaborate arrangements which the UK’s and now other European mobile networks have put or are putting in place partly to underline how seriously these companies take such matters but equally to advertise the potential magnitude of the contrary impact of the large scale arrival of another method of connecting wirelessly to the internet.

WiFi changes the rules of the game

WiFi is the name given to a technology which allows a range of devices to connect remotely to a network, of which the internet is without doubt the main one.

Bluetooth and Infrared  do the same sort of thing as WiFi and they have been around a little bit longer but they are somewhat limited by their range or speed. WiFi is superior, very easy to implement and to use. The forward march of WiFi proceeds apace.

In parts of the world whole cities are covered by a network of WiFi hotspots which run at speeds that can already or soon will match those available through mainstream broadband connections. The Mayor of London says he wants the nation’s capital covered by WiFi by the time of next year’s Olympics.

From here to ubiquity

A good proportion of modern gadgets that are now commonly found in children’s bedrooms and satchels have WiFi as a standard feature. I’m thinking about laptops, MP3 players such as the iTouch, and games consoles. However, probably the largest single class of WiFi enabled devices that children and young people use every day are mobile phones. If your child’s current mobile doesn’t have WiFi, the one they own tomorrow almost certainly will.

Here’s the rub. If you connect to the internet using the phone’s WiFi capability you immediately bypass all of the clever filtering controls that your network has so carefully and so expensively put in place.

Parents and teachers complain that children and young people often have age inappropriate materials on their phones. Pornography is the one most frequently mentioned. Admittedly there are several ways in which it could have got there e.g. via email, Bluetooth, swapping memory cards or even by someone creating it using the high quality cameras that are now standard in most phones. But there is little doubt that porn is getting on to phones by the WiFi route.

WiFi providers need to follow the mobile industry’s lead

A growing number of household name companies active in retail on the High Street provide free WiFi to their customers or indeed to anyone who walks on to or close by their premises. Consequently it looks like these famous brands are unwittingly aiding and abetting the supply of pornography and other gruesome stuff to children and young people who could not otherwise have accessed it. McDonald’s is one of the brands that isn’t. Whilst their customers could access a number of items that are blocked by the adult bar referred to earlier, the company specifically requested their WiFi supplier to run an anti-porn filter. Are they the exception that proves the rule? I fear so.

The view of the UK’s major children’s charities is that all WiFi providers that operate in public spaces which are mixed environments should, as closely as possible and by default, mimic the provisions which have been made by the mobile phone networks. This would make it impossible, or at any rate pointless, for mobile phone users to try to circumvent the existing controls. This view is in line with the findings of the Bailey Review which was endorsed by the present Government and the Byron Review which was endorsed by the last Government and the Conservative Party when they were in Opposition.

The number of businesses that provide WiFi connectivity to firms that operate in public spaces is not overly large. The biggest players are companies like BT Openzone and The Cloud, owned by BskyB. Several other large telecoms and internet players are at an advanced stage of preparing their entry to the market. They should all take note.

Major High Street brands could easily be embarrassed

At least one major retailer was shocked to discover what their customers could access via the free WiFi service they provide on their premises. They are raising it with their WiFi supplier. I trust many more will do the same. Alternatively or, even better, in addition, we should be looking to the handset manufacturers and other key players in the mobile ecology to start developing apps which can be preinstalled and preconfigured on every new handset leaving their factories. Belt and braces.

Note to self

Spoke to the Mayor of London’s Press Office. Seemingly the contract to deliver on the Mayor’s promise to cover the city in WiFi by next Summer is in procurement at the moment. Nobody knew any of the details in relation to the specification for filtering. Must check back later.

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