The devil is in the detail


Last Saturday the Daily Mail carried a detailed account of the Prime Minister’s views on how online child safety in the UK should move forward. I checked and can confirm that in all of its essentials the story was accurate. The devil will be in the detail but I am clear that, as things stand, we should all welcome what has been proposed. If the industry delivers on everything Mr Cameron has called for we will definitely be in a better place.

New and existing users are covered

The core idea is that both existing users and anyone buying a new computer or signing up to a new internet connection will be asked whether or not they have children who are or will be using it. Presumably if the answer is “no” they pass straight through.

At first sight, who could complain about that? No one, but what if, as often happens, the child is the person asked to do the set up? Wouldn’t they just say “no” knowing that would guarantee them untrammelled access and perhaps they would then forget to mention this to Mum or Dad?

Age verification makes an entrance?

The PM thought about that. He also expressly asked that providers come up with a method for determining that the person doing the set-up is an adult. Bravo.

However, if the answer to the original question is “Yes I have children who are or will be using this device or connection” under the Prime Minister’s plan you are taken to a page which will kick off a process of installing filters to block access to a range of age inappropriate content.

This is not just about pornography

It’s important to be clear about this. The material we are talking about here is not just pornography, though that is certainly included. Pro-anorexia, suicide, self-harm and other sites that show materials which are not considered suitable for younger people would also be covered. For many it is these latter types of site that raise higher levels of concern.

By default the filters will be pre-selected to block access to all or most of the categories displayed. It would require an intervention to remove any ticks and allow access. Here is the first interesting point to ponder. So a parent could say “Yes I have children who are or will be using this device or connection” and then go on to allow access to pornography, suicide, self-harm and similar sites? Hmmmm.

Bite the bullet?

I am sure this will prompt some to say we should simply bite the bullet and follow the lead given by the mobile phone companies. Since 2004 the mobile industry in the UK has operated an “adult bar”. In other words it has applied a policy of default on. The content in question can only be accessed subject to each individual account holder being age verified as over 18. This can be done swiftly and easily because 95% of all adults are on one or more online database which can be reached in real time. For the 5% who cannot be verified in this way other routes are possible but obviously they would take a little longer.

Incidentally the parental controls being suggested by Mr Cameron will also contain time management options to limit when children can, for example, go on Facebook or other designated sites.

An impressive turnout

Yesterday civil servants sent me and other members of the UKCCIS Board an interim report on the outcome of the public consultation on Active Choice which took place over the summer.

I’m not really supposed to discuss the findings in detail until we have had the Board Meeting next month when, I assume, we will be given the full and final version of the analysis. However, I can say that the UK’s main online free speech lobby – the Open Rights Group – definitely wins the prize. Well over half of all the responses appear to bear a striking similarity to the position they advocated.

On the other hand parents…..

However, among those respondents who identified themselves as parents, and remember the consultation was aimed principally at parents, it looks like over half were not satisfied with the status quo and the largest single group to express a preference – assuming no double counting – appeared to support the position advocated by Claire Perry MP, namely of having filters turned on by default.

This is not a numbers game

While numbers matter we should never for one moment think this is simply about numbers. We are not calibrating a utilitarian trade off where we limit ourselves to doing the greatest good for the greatest number and no more.

We have responsibilities to all children and all families, not just some, and when it comes to the internet even small percentages can represent gigantic numbers of human beings.

This is key because while I can see no reason why ISPs could not replicate the mobile companies’ approach, I accept that if ISPs did go down that path it might represent a minor inconvenience to some e.g. those people who live in households without children. But that’s all it is. Nothing more.

When it comes to buying alcohol, cigarettes, going in to various establishments or going to the cinema we all readily acquiesce in requests for proof of age or what have you because we accept the underlying purpose of the policy: the protection of children. One way of thinking about this whole initiative, therefore, is as a quest to replicate as far as we can in the online world long-established practices which are taken for granted in the real world.

No one in this debate supports censorship

Default on is emphatically not about censorship. Nothing that is currently on the internet disappears. With only a couple of extra steps every adult could continue to access everything that is out there. Only children would face obstacles, but they would be obstacles put in front of things they were never meant to see in the first place.

Red herring avoidance 

Default on or default off, opt-in or opt-out, whatever you want to call it, in and of itself has no bearing whatsoever on the question of how you improve parental knowledge of internet safety issues confronting children. Neither does any particular approach guarantee any specific outcome in relation to improving or changing levels of parental engagement with children’s online activities.

With opt-in or opt-out, with default on or default off, you could see zero improvement in those respects or you could see substantially higher levels of parental knowledge and engagement. Everything hinges on how the sign up processes are designed and presented and, just as vital, on how they are followed up e.g. with periodic reminders via email, through the use of timely pop ups and so on.

It is true that content filters would have little impact on contact or behavioural questions – bullying, sexual predators and the like. Most parents probably find these  more worrying. However, it is absurd to argue that you should therefore not address content questions for fear of instilling a “false sense of security” in those parents in relation to issues connected with inappropriate contacts. It is not either or.

A parent who thinks that because their child cannot reach a porn site they cannot be bullied on Facebook or approached by a sex predator is a parent badly in need of enlightenment, which brings us back full circle. In any and every scenario promoting greater parental awareness and promoting greater awareness among children remains central to the strategy.

More to it than the obsolescent “family PC” 

The PM’s reported comments appear to be directed principally at hardware manufacturers and ISPs. I don’t have a problem with that but going after the hardware manufacturers is definitely choosing the hard road. There are so many of them, and their headquarters are generally outside of the UK, whereas access providers are much smaller in number and because almost by definition they are all in the UK they are easier to reach.

In a typical family setting there could easily be 20 or so different devices in the house that can connect to the internet, of which “the family PC” (if such still exist) might be the one least used by the children. That would leave Mums and Dads high and dry, potentially having to learn how to set the controls on each individual device.

Talk Talk is one of the UK’s largest ISPs. Its approach deals with this problem because its family safety settings are up on the network. All devices in the home – iPads, laptops, games consoles – accessing the internet via their connection will be covered. None of the other ISPs have indicated whether they will follow Talk Talk’s lead. I think it is likely they will but the article in the Mail does not say so or give us any clues.

Nobody need do exactly what Talk Talk did. If the other connectivity providers put the controls on to the router they supply to every customer it would achieve exactly the same effect, and almost certainly a great deal more cheaply. It could get tricky if a customer decides to swap routers for one of their own but even that can be dealt with.

Need to complete the circle

The PM’s statement did not refer to public WiFi access but we all know in that department things are coming down the track at some speed so he didn’t need to. Pretty soon we will be in a position where, out on the street,  in pubs and shops, adult content will not be available to anyone via WiFi. As we have seen on mobile phones adult content will only be available to people who have been age verified as over 18. Thus the only place that adult content will be easily accessible to children will be in their homes. That is the challenge the Prime Minister is seeking to address. I trust the industry will respond to his clarion call with all due speed.