Default or not default? That is the question.

 

People’s attitudes towards legal pornography are influenced by a complex array of factors.

Some might have strong religious beliefs. Alternatively if they have no religious beliefs, or no relevant ones, they might nonetheless hold very firm views on the ethics of pornography or the pornography industry.

Many are concerned about pornography’s wider impact on society, particularly in shaping attitudes towards women. Perhaps some people had a bad experience when they were younger. Seeing pornographic images could take them right back there and be extremely upsetting.  Any number of unpredictable issues could be at play.

  • The scale has completely changed

What is beyond dispute, however, is that because of the internet never before in human history has so much pornographic material been so readily available on such a huge and unremitting scale. That alone should give us pause for thought. But in addition empirically-based evidence from impeccable clinical and other sources is starting to accumulate showing that pornography is causing harm to some adults.

How do we know? A growing number of adults are now seeking help and support from psychotherapists or from relationship counsellors where at the heart of their apparent troubles is online pornography or online sex more generally.

  • If some adults are finding it difficult to cope……

If significant numbers of adults appear to be finding it difficult to deal with the consequences of the large scale easy access to pornography, what might it be doing to our children and our young people? Adults by and large will at least have had the opportunity to learn about and negotiate the minefield that is sex and human relationships. Most children and young people will not. If ever there was an argument for adopting the precautionary principle surely this is it?

  • Sex on the High Street

The UK Parliament decided to impose minimal limitations on how and where pornography might be advertised, bought or viewed in the real world.

For example the Indecent Displays (Control) Act, 1981, established a law which prohibits the presentation of overtly sexual imagery on our High Streets. Sex shops and the like are quite legal but on public highways they must speak to us in a restrained way.

If anyone wants to inspect a porn merchant’s full wares they have to make a conscious decision to do so by physically going to the shop and walking through the door. Only those aged 18 or above are allowed on the premises. A careless proprietor who did not enforce the rule could quickly find themselves in front of a Magistrate.

Through planning and zoning regulations emporia of this type are not normally found in residential areas or near schools. They will typically be downtown, often in or close to the red light district. It is very easy to avoid being offended by any of this. Just don’t go there.

Not all Newsagents and supermarkets will carry pornographic stock but, where they do, magazines and videos are usually put inside a translucent envelope which masks raunchy images or messages that are on the covers. If you wish to buy pornographic videos or go to a cinema to watch a pornographic movie, you have to satisfy the vendor or the cinema owner that you are over 18.

  • UK already has an opt-in system

Thus in the real world Brits have definitely established an “opt in” system where pornography is concerned. There is also a clear intention to limit access to persons who have reached the age of majority. Other countries have comparable regimes.

  • Online and offline equivalence

The internet is widely perceived to be a public space and we constantly hear the refrain that what is legal offline is legal online. What is illegal offline is also illegal online. In part this mantra has fuelled a developing expectation that the internet should therefore comply with or approximate to standards that are applied on terra firma. As far as they can.

  • Optional filters

In relation to the vexed question of pornography all the industry has come up with so far is optional filters usually linked to a recommendation to parents that they supervise their children when they go online.

  • How do you supervise a mobile phone?

There are two things wrong with this approach: the explosion of wireless and portable forms of access to the internet, through laptops, games consoles, mobile phones and so on, makes the supervision idea redundant for all practical purposes.

  • The problem with optional filters

As for the optional filters, survey after survey shows these are not being taken up, despite the fact that most large ISPs provide the software free. It might even be preinstalled, but not preconfigured, by the hardware supplier. There is no evidence to suggest that parents have carefully considered the pros and cons of implementing the filters and decided against. On the contrary parents say they think filters are a good idea.

So why the discrepancy? Simple. Too many parents feel unconfident about “lifting the hood” of the family PC and other online devices. They worry they will break them, resulting in a costly repair or possibly requiring an entirely new one. The family home could be offline for a protracted period. Not good news in a house full of young people with homework to do and lives to lead.

  • Time to try something new

I am all for trying to get hardware manufacturers and retailers to do their bit, but ISPs have an obvious and immediate responsibility. ISPs therefore need to do more to show that they can rise to the challenge. Nearly twenty years of the old ways have not worked. Why not try something new? Why not provide internet connections with filtering turned on by default, either at network level or on the routers which are now supplied as a standard part of every family package?

  • No responsibility

This idea is deeply offensive to old internet hands and to parts, only parts, of the ISP industry. “We supply dumb pipes” is their less than electrifying rallying call. They claim they have no responsibility at all for what others choose to load into or on to those pipes. This is a latter day version of “I was only following orders.”

In fact ISPs are already engaged in varying degrees of management of what passes over their networks. Think about spam as only one rather obvious example, but there are others. There is no doubt the internet could be run with little or no demands being made of those who provide the basic infrastructure, but the question is should it be?

  • If this was easy I probably wouldn’t write a blog about it

Yes there are technical challenges to providing sensible forms of filtering turned on by default, but what has been absent hitherto has been any real appetite to overcome those challenges on the part of players of the sort of size who could pull it off.

  • Public education a vital part

Marketing and promoting the solutions are almost as important as the solutions themselves. Think about some of the major public service campaigns that have actually worked and led to lasting cultural changes, altering the real world behaviour of tens of millions of people.

Without wanting to push the analogy too far, consider “Clunk Click Every Trip” (for seats belts). And drink driving? These are two that spring to mind most readily. Those campaigns were huge, sustained over many years. There has never been anything even close in the field of online safety for children.

Yet given the relative newness of many of the challenges being posed by some aspects of the new technologies perhaps something of similar dimensions is exactly what is required. We need to establish a new and large platform of public understanding.

  • Partly it’s about money 

The plain truth is that the more ISPs or indeed any companies with an interest are expected or required to invest in systems or campaigns which operate below the line the more it cuts into their profit margins. I think some also have a residual worry that if you start talking about the bad stuff too loudly or too often it will not be good for business, stimulating more anxiety or (expensive) calls to help lines.

However, we need to be careful not to tar all ISPs and others with the same brush. Some of them get it, although perhaps they have been a bit timid about saying so. Maybe they have not wanted to be the first to break from the herd.

  • This is really about corporate social responsibility

I completely agree that ISPs should not have any kind of legal liability for their involvement in innocently facilitating access to anything at all, whether it be legal or illegal content. But ISPs must show they understand public anxieties. They must show they are not taking the Mickey. The privileged protection they currently enjoy by virtue of the E Commerce Directive and similar provisions elsewhere could easily start to be eroded.

  • Good filters only, please

There is no doubt some of the early filtering products were very crude. They “overblocked” i.e. obstructed access to too many sites, causing large numbers of parents to have to run to the machine every ten minutes to enter the password to allow access to perfectly unobjectionable material. Eventually a lot of families just gave up using the filters altogether and turned them off. People will not use, or at any rate will not continue to use stupid filters.

Then there was the problem of under-blocking – letting through material which should have been blocked. Early versions of filters did get a bad press. No filter is ever going to be 100% effective in every department but things have moved on. They are getting a lot better. They have to.

So let’s be clear. We do not need filters which cannot distinguish between a site offering recipes for fricassée of breast of chicken and “Hustler” magazine. We do not want filters which insist that everyone in the house, from 7 to 17 to 70, can only view the same sort of stuff. Nor filters which secretly block access to competitors’ web sites. No. These are caricatures of filters. They are old news.

  • The importance of preinstallation and preconfiguring

I argue for preinstallation and preconfiguring the software because parents should not have to jump through hoops to make their children’s machines ready to use. Of course parents should be able to relax or remove altogether any filters which have been preinstalled. But if a parent needs to learn how to alter settings to achieve a different result from the default, those default settings should be biased in favour of safety not against it.

Naturally, people should be free to choose machines or services which do not have anything preinstalled. If there are no kids in the house or you use other ways of dealing with these things then that’s fine.

  • Encouraging resilience

Precisely because  filters will never be completely effective all of the time, they can never be viewed as being a complete alternative to ongoing education and awareness initiatives.

A child’s best defence against anything the world might throw at him or her is always going to be their own knowledge, their own resilience.

  • Filters are not a substitute for parental engagement

Filters are emphatically not a replacement for encouraging parental involvement in every way possible in relation to their children’s use of the internet. On the contrary, filters can draw parents in and be enormously informative about wider internet safety issues.

  • Filters can provide a safety net

But filters can provide a very important safety net. Indeed in some households it may be the only net of any kind.

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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