A very British fudge


Last Friday in the House of Lords Baroness Howe brought forward a Private Member’s Bill. Inter alia, the Bill would make it a legal requirement for all mobile phone companies to install adult content filters. These would have to be turned on by default and could only be lifted if the user completed an age verification process.

Some people wondered whether such a measure was truly necessary. Weren’t all the mobile companies already doing this? Hadn’t they all signed up to default on adult content filters in their announcement of January 2004? Yes they had. Or at least that was what everyone thought or was led to believe.

In fact from the off one of the smaller networks, 3, only applied the default on filters to their Pay As You Go accounts. 3’s contract customers had to ask for the filters to be activated. However, earlier this year 3 decided to fall into line with the other networks and apply the same policy to both.  This enabled our Prime Minister to say, on 22nd July, in a major speech 

…..on mobile phones it’s great to report that all of the operators have now agreed to put adult content filters onto phones automatically. And to deactivate them you have to prove you’re over 18…..

The Prime Minister spoke in good faith

The PM made those comments in good faith doubtless believing them to be true. If I had been speaking that day I would have said the same thing. But the words were wrong.

A few days ahead of Lady Howe’s Bill landing on the floor of the House of Lords one of her advisers discovered that Tesco Mobile did not apply the adult content bar. Tesco Mobile has over 3,000,000 customers. I think that makes them about the 6th largest mobile company in the country.

Question: when is a mobile network operator not a mobile network operator?

The January 2004 agreement referred to above was signed by (what is now) EE, O2, Vodafone and 3. These are members of the Mobile Broadband Group (MBG). Each of them owns all or most of the telecoms infrastructure over which they provide a service. You might say they are real  mobile network operators.

Answer: when it’s a virtual mobile network operator

Tesco Mobile does not own any telecoms infrastructure. It is not a member of the MBG. Essentially Tesco rents space and facilities to enable it to provide the Tesco Mobile service.

Tesco Mobile is what is known as a virtual mobile network operator (VMNO). It had therefore never signed up to the MBG’s statement. Thus no one can accuse Tesco of knowingly or deliberately misrepresenting what was happening on their service. But through their silence Tesco allowed the Prime Minister and his advisers to accept as true something that was false. And me.

Here’s another thing

Tesco Mobile is part-owned by O2. O2 is represented on the Board of Tesco Mobile. O2 provides Tesco with all or most of the telecoms infrastructure that Tesco Mobile uses. O2 must have known what the position was with adult content especially since it appears that, at one point, the filters had been working. Seemingly about two years ago O2 changed the way their network functioned. It was then Tesco Mobile dropped the filters. 

All’s well that ends well, but…..

Over the weekend Tesco Mobile said the adult content filters will now be turned on as quickly as possible. Best estimates suggest this will be by the beginning of February, 2014. Does that mean we can then confidently say, as we used to, that all Pay As You Go and contract customers of all of the UK’s mobile phone networks are covered by default on adult content filters? No.

There are over 90 virtual mobile networks in the UK. It’s proving difficult to get someone to say they are certain every VMNO has filters turned on by default for all users. It is possible Tesco Mobile was the only one that didn’t, but there again they might not be. I don’t know anyone who has the resources to test each VMNO and find out. Ofcom has no powers or responsibilities in this area. Nobody does.

BlackBerry 2

If this was the first time something like this had happened maybe we could just write it off as unfortunate, the product of a misunderstanding.  Regrettably, though, the Tesco Mobile story has distinct echoes of the BlackBerry affair.

If you remember in late 2011 it emerged that, with the exception of T Mobile’s customers, anyone using a BlackBerry handset was not protected against either illegal content (child abuse images) or adult content. Countless people in the industry knew this but no one spoke out or told anyone despite the fact that BlackBerry handsets were known to be extremely popular with children and young people.

Self-regulation depends upon transparency

Self-regulation of the internet has been the dominant mantra of all the major political parties in the UK. It holds sway at EU-level and wider afield. But it is self-evident that, for it to work in the long run, people have to be confident that they are not being hoodwinked or manipulated.

I am not not sure the idea of self-regulation of the internet in the UK could withstand another Tesco Mobile or BlackBerry story. The UKCCIS Executive Board is not built or resourced to be an accountability mechanism of the sort that could have uncovered what was happening with BlackBerry devices or on the Tesco Mobile network. Everyone who seriously wants to preserve self-regulation should be thinking about that.