The geeks do not rule. OK?

 

Not every household in the UK has under-18s in it. Roughly 10 million out of 26 million do. That’s almost 40%. The family market is large and therefore important to many industries, including Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Households with children of school age are more likely to have an internet connection than those who do not.

Then there’s the increasing salience of mobiles in this space. I will return to that theme  but in this blog I want to stay focused on the home. We all spend a great deal of time there.

Here is an interesting insight. Just look at how many people buy their home access from what is fundamentally a TV company.

TV companies are big players in the UK’s ISP market

In May, 2011, over 90% of the UK’s domestic broadband consumers obtained their service from one of only four companies. In order of size these were BT, Virgin, TalkTalk and Sky. Of the four only TalkTalk does not currently have any kind of TV offering, other than the residual one it inherited when it took over Tiscali.

Virgin and Sky, perhaps the classic examples of telly companies turned broadband providers, between them account for just under 40%. BT heavily promotes BT Vision which, as far as I can tell but don’t ask me how, is a way of getting Sky only cheaper.

If you add to Sky’s and Virgin’s numbers the 10% of BT’s broadband customers who subscribe to BT Vision as their primary source of paid for programmes it may not be fanciful to suppose that soon over half the UK’s internet usage will in some way or other be tied to what we used to call the goggle box. The growth in the sales of internet enabled televisions and set top boxes is only likely to reinforce this trend.

My suspicion is a growing proportion of broadband account holders see the internet simply as a sort of household utility. Welcome to the pantheon of ordinariness. That’s a major achievement for a technology still so young. However, this underscores the need for a shift in its overall orientation that has yet to be achieved.

You can put the internet in your shopping bag

Just to underline the everyday if not humdrum nature of the beast, not long ago I noticed that Toys R Us now sell wireless routers and laptops. EBay, PayPal, Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin all promote special prepaid gift cards exclusively for use on their service. You can usually pick them up at the check-out in supermarkets. Last time I looked they were on a carousel next to the rack selling Grazia and Hello.

Some clever marketing guys even found a way to make cyberspace tangible. They created colourful cardboard gift boxes which they put into department stores on the shelves next to kettles and toasters. Inside this box was the internet. You could just pop it in your shopping bag and take it home with you. Neat.

This steady accretion of the trappings of domesticity has been edging some suppliers close to selling under a false prospectus. Bits of the virtual world are a million miles away from hearth, home and wholesomeness. You think you bought a goldfish. Turns out you brought back a piranha.

Perpetual struggle?

In a roundabout way all I am saying is we must stop thinking about the internet as if it were still only, or even primarily, an adult or business medium for which special (usually meaning irritating) provisions need to be made to take account of the fact that children, families, will use it only occasionally.

Geeks no longer rule. Other decidedly non-geeky groups constitute a sizeable, permanent body of highly engaged users. They may even be the majority, although I stress I do not think these kinds of discussions should ever be reduced to a simple numbers game. We all have rights and interests, I just wish those of children, families and consumers occasionally received a bit more attention more often.

We cannot continue to see every single effort to make the internet more congenial solely through the prism of how it might help the Government of Belorussia to continue suppressing the truth. A not insignificant part of what the internet is also about is Mums in Barnsley teaching their four year olds how to spell, or helping mobility impaired pensioners get their weekly shopping delivered by Tesco.

Reality is not at fault

A while back I heard one respected and respectable nerd say it was simply outrageous that nearly two-thirds of parents allowed their children to use computers connected to the internet in their bedrooms, in other words without any supervision. What did they think they were doing being so irresponsible, he asked?

Hellooooo! Mission Control here. We need to get you back to Planet Earth as soon as possible. That momentary interruption in the supply of oxygen to your brain has clearly done more damage than we first realised!

If two thirds of parents are doing something there is probably a good reason for that. Reality is not at fault. Moreover in these days of wifi hotspots, laptops and smartphones the bedrooms-not-bedrooms argument is redundant. The technology has taken us to a point where close or constant parental supervision of children’s use of the internet is all but impossible except for the very young.

Time to innovate

The whole thing is the wrong way around. This is 2011 not 1992. It’s time to innovate. Let’s try something new.

Step forward the big four ISPs again. Following, or rather to coincide with the publication of the Bailey Review, BT, Virgin, Sky and Talk Talk announced they intend to go with one of its principal recommendations. They are each beefing up their promotion of filtering solutions to help keep unwanted content out of family homes. This was warmly welcomed across almost the entire political spectrum within Britain. Quite right too. Bravo!

Talk Talk was the first to get going. I am pretty sure Talk Talk is consequently the first company ever to put adverts on during prime time viewing which focus solely or at any rate principally on internet safety in a family setting. Well done them. This is what we need. The promotion of a new culture, a new awareness of online safety is at least as important, some argue it is even more important, than the technical solutions themselves.

It will be very interesting to see how Talk Talk’s and the other three companies’ efforts work out. The big four’s ready agreement to have the outcomes of this initiative independently reviewed stands greatly to their credit. In an instant it distinguishes them from the attitude taken by so many other high tech firms who, if they hear any mention of reviews, independent or otherwise, run straight for the hills.

As in so many things, transparency is key. A refusal to be transparent rings alarm bells that make everyone wonder what’s really going on.


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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