In the UK if a customer wants to get the adult content filter lifted from his or her mobile phone they have to go through an age verification process to prove they are over 18. It’s simple, it’s fast and it has been working since 2005.
Last year the Big Four ISPs announced they were going to present their free adult content filters in a different way to their domestic customers. There was an expectation in some quarters that as the new system rolled out the ISPs would do something similar or equivalent to the mobile companies i.e. if the ISPs’ filters were declined or modified the person making that decision would have to be verified there and then as being over 18. This would help guard against the possibility – some would argue the probability – that many parents hand over complicated techie things like setting up a new account or service to their kids who might just cruise by the filters and omit to mention this to Mum or Dad. However, it was clear the ISPs did not want to go down that path.
In support of their position some of the ISPs argued their relationship was with the account holder, the presumed parent. By definition in the case of a new account this person had just been confirmed as being an adult and they asserted they were entitled to assume it was them doing the set up because the whole business of providing credit card information and the like was such an integral part of the way accounts are started. There was therefore no need to age verify that person twice and definitely not so soon.
In addition and in any event the ISPs made clear that once the set up was finished an email would go to the account holder informing them of all the decisions that had been made about filters. The same would happen if, subsequently, any further alterations were made. This system became known as the closed loop. The idea was the emails would keep the parents informed and if they didn’t like what they saw they could step in.
Some scepticism was expressed about the likelihood of parents actually reading an email from their ISP but no one had any data to prove the point definitively one way or another so as we were all left floating the ISPs went ahead.
Some data does now exist on this second point. It has come from the first and so far only study of its kind (at least that I’m aware of) so we must all stand ready to consider other evidence that might materialise. But what the study shows resonates strongly with me.
CARE commissioned ComRes to carry out a poll. In a survey of over 2,000 adults 16% of parents with children under the age of 18 said they would be unlikely ever to read an email from their ISP. 15% said they might leave it for up to a week and fully one in three said they would be unlikely to read an email from their ISP immediately. To put that differently at most only a little more than a third of parents said they would read an email from their ISP straight away.
The Big Four are soon to embark on their public information campaign in which the role of filters will be explained. Parents are a key part of their target group. At the end of it the level of understanding of the importance of reading emails from your ISP may be more widespread. The closed loop might work. I hope it does. We will be checking.
Maybe if ComRes carries out another poll in twelve months time, when all new and existing customers will have been required to make a decision about filters, they could ask a few additional or follow up questions:
Did you receive an email from your ISP telling you whether or how filters were being used on your home system?
Did you feel you fully understood what the email said?
Did you feel you needed to step in and change anything as a result of what the email disclosed?
If you did, did you in fact do so and within what timeframe?