I wonder if Nigel Farage – leader of the UK’s anti-EU party – has a cousin or at any rate a friend working within European institutions, conspiring with him to help convince Brits we ought to leave the EU? I’m beginning to think so. How else can we explain the utterly bizarre attack the EU seems to be mounting on online child safety in the UK?
Here is the essence of the story. When you’ve read it you’ll know why I chose the headline you can see above.
It begins with roaming charges and net neutrality
I think we all know what roaming charges are: these are the extra costs the mobile phone networks levy on us when we use our mobile phones outside of the country in which we normally reside.
Many of us think roaming charges are or have been extortionate and so did lots of Members of the European Parliament and the Commission of the European Union. Last summer a measure was brought to the Parliament which would restrict the ability of the mobile networks to charge so much. Bravo.
I am not sure why exactly but the stuff on roaming charges got put into a single legislative instrument that also dealt with net neutrality. No falling asleep at the back please. Pay attention. I’m getting there.
While huge numbers of people will know about roaming charges I doubt if you randomly selected a hundred thousand people you would find more than one who was tuned in to (nerdy) net neutrality. The other 999,999 would probably guess it has something to do with saving baby dolphins.
In fact the debate about net neutrality is fundamentally an argument about managing traffic on the internet. The companies who build and own the physical infrastructure of the internet – the cables, wireless masts and so on – think it is unfair that businesses like Netflix, Google and Facebook (for example) can amass great fortunes without making any direct contribution to the cost of the internet’s nuts and bolts. As they see it such companies get a free ride on other people’s investments.
And it’s going to get worse
As the demands on the internet’s infrastructure grow, particularly in respect of the increasing amount of video being transmitted, so some of the infrastructure companies dreamed up the idea of offering to give preferential treatment to online businesses that paid them for it.
Critics argued this offended against a basic tenet of the internet which holds that all (legal) traffic should be treated equally. It was further suggested that bigger, richer, already established businesses could afford to pay premium rates to get their product, service or content delivered more quickly or reliably, and in so doing they would be discriminating against new start ups. This, in turn, would stifle innovation.
No mention of children
By now you will be asking what any of this has got to do with children and their use of the internet? The answer should be absolutely nothing but sadly that is not the case, thanks to the diligent efforts of Nigel’s cousin.
In the bit of the proposal designed to deal with traffic management the wording originally proposed appeared to ban any attempt by any internet access provider e.g. a mobile phone company, an ISP or a WiFi provider, to restrict or manage any kind of legal content on the internet. But that is precisely what has been happening in the UK for many years in respect of pornography and other types of adult content. The mobile phone companies started doing it in 2005 and following David Cameron’s recent energetic intervention the ISPs and WiFi providers have been doing likewise.
For the avoidance of doubt
In order to avoid any doubt about the legality of what the UK internet industry was already doing, during the “Trialogue” discussions (don’t ask) UK civil servants proposed some new words be included in the draft law. These words would make it clear that steps taken to protect children when they went online would be exempt from a general ban on traffic management.
You might have thought such a proposal would be readily accepted. It wasn’t. On the contrary the latest version of the text demands that before parental controls can be deployed in respect of an individual account the access provider must obtain the explicit prior consent of the account holder.
At a stroke this kills off the default-on approach which has been adopted by of all of our mobile phone companies, by Sky Broadband as well as the WiFi providers who have signed on to the Friendly WiFi scheme. And it all seems a bit sneaky or tacky for this to have come about as the result of a measure which, ostensibly, has nothing whatsoever to do with online child safety.
Why did the British internet industry go for default-on in the first place? Because time and again parents in the UK said they liked the idea of using filters but they had found the whole business of setting them up to be too daunting or difficult. Default-on filters streamlined and simplified the whole process.
Parents should not have to jump through hoops to make the internet safer
If parents want to liberalise the settings that’s their choice. They can do it with a modicum of effort. This is not about censorship but parents shouldn’t have to struggle to make things better and safer for their kids.
Left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing?
Elsewhere in the Commission a lot of work has been going on around online child safety but clearly Robert Madelin’s reach does not extend far enough. Once again the case is made for stronger, higher level co-ordination of policy affecting children.
The ill-considered proposal should be withdrawn forthwith.
There should be no penalty or prohibition attaching to any internet access provider taking reasonable steps to help protect children from age inappropriate content or services on the internet. The opposite should be the case. The European Union should be encouraging access providers to do just that.