Public WiFi and politics


It is two weeks and a day since Mr Cameron disclosed to the Daily Telegraph that he wanted to ensure, where internet access was being made available via WiFi in public spaces, the WiFi provider would take steps to block access to porn web sites.

A public space is defined as somewhere children and young people are likely to be found on a regular basis. David Cameron was not concerning himself with what happens in nightclubs, casinos and the like so it’s clear this is not about free speech. It’s about a time and a place, common decency.

At stake is not just what children and young people might themselves access on the internet away from the constraints of home or school but also what they could be exposed to by thoughtless or inconsiderate individuals whom they may have the misfortune to sit next to in a WiFi enabled coffee bar, hamburger joint, train or what have you.

Does this mean the PM anticipates legislation to compel WiFi providers to deploy anti-porn filters? Not as far as I can tell although it would be very popular with parents. Through the work being carried out by Claire Perry and the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (I am a member of its Executive Board) a voluntary code of practice that will deliver what David Cameron wants was on the cards at one point. However, as of yesterday at any rate, the WiFi industry has started to shy away from the idea. I cannot believe the industry will die in the ditch to defend a “no code” position but stranger things have happened at sea.

The rather thin argument being advanced by the WiFi suppliers in opposition to the idea of having a public code of practice is that, unlike in other areas of internet self-regulation, this is fundamentally about how they conduct business with other businesses e.g. Starbucks and McDonald’s, as opposed to consumers. Even a moment’s thought blows away that analysis. It is one step removed from consumers but it is an exceptionally small step.

No code means no transparency and no accountability, no permanence. No code means we have nothing by which we can judge the performance of businesses or their fidelity to the Government’s declared intentions. The WiFi companies have offered to write individual letters to Ministers telling them what they are doing but that’s as far as they want to go. I am not sure if they realise all the correspondence would be available under the freedom of information rules. All they would achieve, therefore, is a delay in disclosure and they would greatly annoy the civil servants who have to process the FOI requests.

There has been some talk about encouraging a de facto code to emerge by way of a kitemark scheme. I have no objection to that but, even there, to satisfy legitimate public policy concerns there has to be some sort of oversight or evaluation of how it is administered. Anyone can think of a funky child-friendly name, create a nice logo and set themselves up to sell or provide a WiFi kitemark. For it to be credible and acceptable to a wider community though it needs the backing of an organization or individuals who have an established reputation in content classification. There aren’t many of those about the place.

Finally, it seems some WiFi providers are still torn over whether or not to charge extra for helping businesses to protect children from pornography. Just formulating the proposition in that way points to the rather obvious answer.

Those WiFi providers who have already decided to absorb the cost of filtering in their basic offering are smart. No one will be able to accuse them of profiting from porn. Any company that wishes to charge for such filtering, albeit on a “cost recovery” basis will not be able to shelter behind that wall and I hate to think what might get thrown over it.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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