A false sense of security or a false argument?


I have previously commented that the Prime Minister’s November announcement about Active Choice definitely represents a step forward for online child protection in the UK. I hold to that line. If implemented the UK will retain and enhance its position as leaders in the online child protection space. No question about that.

However, that still does nothing to address my sense of disappointment that the Government did not have the courage to take a much larger step. The number of people who share my view seems to be growing. Last weekend The Sunday Times (behind a paywall) for the first time ever ran a leader bemoaning the Government’s timidity, and of course the Daily Mail battles on furiously. Both say, as Claire Perry MP does and as I do, that a “default on” or “opt in” or an “automatic lock” system – call it what you will -should have and could have been introduced to keep age inappropriate material away from children when they go online.

In an article last Saturday Harriet Harman QC MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party,  committed the Opposition to supporting default on. This is an important political moment. It is another first, although in this case not a very welcome one. It is the first time ever in Britain that a divide has opened up on Party lines on any issue of significance connected to online child protection. I hope this does not become a habit but of course I welcome Ms Harman’s support. She is with the zeitgeist. The Government isn’t.

Government body decides to support the Government – shock!

The UKCCIS Board finally met yesterday to discuss all this. I am a member. We don’t vote at these meetings anyway but nothing said by any of the three Ministers present indicated any change of policy since the PM’s November declaration. It would have been astonishing if there had been given that Mr Cameron had so recently staked out such a clear position.

So we know things are still moving forward. The cup is half full not half empty. For example the PM said he wanted to see an age verification component built in to the new Active Choice processes, to ensure that anyone setting up a new internet connection or internet enabled device was in fact an adult. There will be a report back in February.

Similarly by February’s meeting we should also know exactly what each of the big four ISPs, and perhaps others, are planning to do to deliver their version of Active Choice,  including in relation to their existing customer base.

Two falses don’t make a correct

One of the key reasons the UK Government gave to explain their opposition to asking ISPs to introduce automatic blocks on adult content is because of their apparent worries that it would induce a “false sense of security” i.e. they believe with filters turned on by default parents would inevitably lose interest in what their children do online as they laboured under the misapprehension that it was now all under control. One might wonder whether that would change the status quo at all in many households, but let it pass.  I accept the purpose of this exercise is to find ways to improve on that.

In particular the Government seems to think that because filters were on by default parents would imagine it would prevent paedophiles or bullies from reaching their children. Many parents are much more concerned about that type of online challenge than they are about many kinds of content popping up on a screen. Yet that does not mean they are not also concerned about content issues. It’s not either or. The Government reached a false conclusion because they started from a false premiss. No surprise therefore that the final decision was bad.

I think this is an example of what philosophers call a “category error”.

Filtering 101

Filters deal with content. They do not directly address the issue of behaviour, although over time they may have an indirect impact. Any parent who thinks filters deal with conduct is a parent in need of enlightenment but then in whatever comes next we have to do a better job of education across the piece.

I simply refuse to believe that we cannot explain to parents what filters can do and what they cannot do. Most assuredly I do not think we should refuse to follow a sensible course of action solely for fear that we cannot explain it satisfactorily to everyone. That way madness lies.

Actions speak louder than words

I can envisage an “opt in system” or an automatic block system which generates zero parental engagement or interest in what their children do when they go online. I can envisage an “opt out” system which does likewise. However, I can equally envisage an opt in or an opt out system which draws parents to it, helps them appreciate what the different options mean, what is covered and what isn’t, why they need to continue to pay attention and so on.

Everything hinges on how the sign up and other processes are designed and presented. How many follow up reminders are sent? At what frequency? Do they use smart and intuitive icons in a timely manner?

Simplicity – always simplicity

The overwhelming argument in favour of opt in or for an automatic block is its simplicity. That is precisely what many parents have repeatedly said they want. No one should have to jump through hoops to make the internet safer for their children. It should be as safe as it can be from the get-go.

Moreover think about all those children in families where they are least likely to get the sort of parental support we all would like every child to have. Maybe the adults in the household do not read English very well. An automatic block makes everything so much easier and straightforward for everyone.

The tyrrany of majorities

If I was a commercial company and, say, 95/96% of my customer base was happy with the service I provided, it caused them no difficulties and broadly delivered what they wanted, I would give myself a big bonus and an even bigger slap on the back.

I might faff around a bit worrying about the 4/5% on the margin but I would not lose a huge amount of sleep over it and I would be even less likely to spend much time or money trying to get the number closer to 100%. I might not admit that in public. I would use honeyed words about how I care for all my customers – because I truly do – but the unvarnished truth is I would feel I was doing a grand job. Actually, I’d be so pleased with myself I think I’d probably take another bonus. Help keep myself motivated. I’m sure the Board and the shareholders will retrospectively endorse my self-serving generosity.

Yet both legally and morally the Government owes a duty of care to every child and every family, not just those in the solid centre, in the middle of the bell curve. The Government should speak up for the weakest, those least likely to be able to look after themselves. And in a matter of this kind, where the filters can be removed if they are not needed, where is the downside?

Yes it would cost money to implement but every network is different consequently the costs would be different for each company. Talk Talk say it cost them between £20-£25 million to put their system in place, but they did it the hard way. There are cheaper and easier routes to achieving the same result.

Mobile phone companies and WiFi providers do it

Our mobile phone companies have had an automatic block on adult content since 2004. All you have to do to get access to it is prove you are over 18. This can be done in seconds, in real time. ISPs can and should do the same.

All of our WiFi providers have said they are going to bar adult content in public spaces where children are likely to be found. Bravo.  The only place where it might continue for some time to be relatively easy for kids to get at hard core porn, suicide and self-harm sites is at home. That cannot be right.

The Government are, in effect, saying until we have a perfect solution for everything it is dangerous to have a partial solution for something. Seat belts don’t stop car accidents but if you’re going to be involved in one they definitely help.

Think of filters as virtual water wings. When you are very young you go online with them on then as you learn more and get older the wings can be deflated, filters can be relaxed and eventually abandoned altogether. Apt metaphors are not hard to find.

Byron and Bailey

Professor Tanya Byron said in 2008 that default on was NOT the preferred option BUT if the industry did not come up with convincing solutions for preventing age inappropriate content reaching children then mandatory blocks and filters might be necessary. Getting on for five years later we have reached that point.

Reg Bailey did not discuss much less dispute or overrule Tanya on that point. He spoke about the need for our real world systems being reflected in the online world. That is what an automatic block delivers. Adult content limited to adults. Exactly right.

A question of political will – nothing more or less

This is really about deciding whether or not we have the will to transport into the virtual environment the same values, attitudes and practices which we as a society have decided upon for the real one. The TV watershed, film classification, age restrictions on the purchase of certain kinds of video games, age restrictions on the purchase of certain type of goods and services: do we want to defend them, insist upon them in the digital age?

To repeat: what the Government is proposing is definitely a step forward. There is no doubt about that. It would be churlish and foolish to try to pretend otherwise. Thus what I am left with is a feeling of a lost opportunity. I believe the great British public, including that majority of households who have no children, would accept default on because they accept and understand its underlying purpose: the protection of children.