Active Choice – the sequel


Today the Prime Minister published an article in the Daily Mail  giving, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say clarifying, his view on the outcome of the recent debate on online child safety in the UK. There is no doubt Mr Cameron appreciates the importance of this issue. We have a good result. It could have been better.

One part of the PM’s clarification which was unreservedly brilliant was his appointment of Claire Perry MP as his special envoy to oversee the development of policy in this area. Claire is  formidably bright and a skilled campaigner who deserves a great deal of the credit for keeping this issue alive and moving forward.

In an ideal world

The Government could have asked the UK’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to follow what the UK’s mobile phone companies have been doing since 2004. In other words the PM might have required ISPs to set up systems to render all adult content inaccessible to every new and existing user until that user had gone through an age verification process to prove they were adults. He didn’t do that.

This is not just about porn

As a matter of fact in this context the mobile companies’ use of the term adult content is a slight misnomer. It suggests they are concerned only with pornography or sex, and nothing else. Parents have repeatedly indicated they are anxious about a far wider range of materials e.g. content found on suicide and self-harm sites, and the mobile companies’ filtering systems in fact do cover a lot more than porn and sex. It might be better to refer to the material they block as being age inappropriate content.

Default on?

The Government is now saying they want a system that is a form of “default on” and that is certainly a plausible interpretation of what they have spelled out in the Daily Mail today, although it is slightly confusing because it is nothing like the default on position Claire Perry and others, me included, campaigned for.

Thus in future when a new computer is turned on or when a new ISP account is opened parents will be asked if children are going to be using the device or connection. If they are, all of the categories of content that have been classified as age inappropriate will be displayed “pre-ticked” and if you do nothing it will all be blocked. If you want to have access to the “pre-ticked” stuff  you will have to intervene and click to remove the tick.

Moreover there will be an age verification element to the process to try to ensure that the person doing the set up is an adult and that a stressed out Mum or Dad has not just handed everything over to their children to get on with it without any further involvement from them. All that is good.

The key to this is transparency. The Government will have zero involvement in the process of determining what is and what is not blocked or “pre-ticked”. Anyone who suggests otherwise is wrong. ISPs are very likely simply to buy in a standard package from one of the major filtering companies such as Symantec, MacAffee or Kaspersky. If they use filters that over block or under block sites or services customers could vote with their feet. The market would sort it out.

However, I would have no problem with asking an independent third party, say the British Board of Film Classification, to examine each ISP’s scheme to give it their seal of approval. They could disallow schemes which were too crude or clunky. That would certainly encourage filtering companies to up their game. Maybe the role and scope of the Independent Mobile Classification Board could be expanded to run an appeals system to hear and resolve complaints from anybody who thought a site or service had been misclassified in either direction.

Introducing a paradox

The obvious paradox, of course, is that the new system will in effect advertise and specifically draw attention to the availability of pornographic, self-harm and suicide web sites. Parents will be asked if they want to allow their children to access those sorts of things. Hmmm. Can I hear someone saying this?

If you select this option an email will automatically be routed to your local Social Services Department so someone can pay you a visit to check out your parenting skills

Everyone in the house gets the same sort of access

The other potential drawback with the proposed approach is that it could mean everyone in the house, or everyone using the device, has to have exactly the same type of access. Everyone is classed as a child, or everyone is an adult. This is not a recipe for harmonious living and in the past has been one of the key reasons why filtering was abandoned by those households that tried it.

How much simpler it would have been if, as with the mobile environment, everyone had to be individually age verified and everybody had their own age verified account. You either got everything the internet had to offer because you were an adult or you got none of it because you weren’t or because you chose not to have it. There would not be a menu which allowed a parent to say “No” to bad language and “Yes” to suicide, porn and tobacco.

I agree the mobile phones’ system is still fairly crude. It could be more granular and in time I expect it will be, but for that to happen we need to develop reliable large scale databases for sub-18s. At the moment such databases of sub-18s just do not exist. 18 is the only available one that will work with an acceptable degree of accuracy. That is no bad thing as 18 is generally accepted as the cut off point for the sorts of content parents care about most. Just because we cannot have a perfect system, that is no reason to reject a good one.

WiFi and timescales

We are still waiting for two final bits of information.

The first is the outcome of discussions which have been taking place with WiFi providers about how they will handle adult content. I think we know what the answer will be – and it will be a good one – but until the ink is dry…..

We also need to know how ISPs will respond to the Prime Minister’s declaration both in terms of their timetable for implementation of the overall scheme and in relation to how they plan to approach existing customers.

We are where we are. We should all try to make this work as best we can.