An active what?

In March, 2008, the Byron Review was published. Paragraph 4.60 on page 94 reads as follows

….. I do not recommend that the UK pursue a policy of blocking non-illegal material at a network level at present. However, this may need to be reviewed if the other measures recommended in this report fail to have an impact on the number and frequency of children coming across harmful or inappropriate content online.

Note the date. More than four years ago. Byron was saying default on was an option if the industry did not pull their fingers out and come up with something that worked to keep age inappropriate material away from kids. The implication was that they should do so within a reasonable timeframe.

Back in 2004 Professor Sonia Livingstone published the results of a survey she had carried out. On UK parents’ “wish list” 85% wanted to see “tougher laws on online pornography” and

Two thirds want improved filtering software, and more than half want more effective means to limit and monitor their children’s usage of the internet.

In the latest EU Kids’ Online survey, to be published in book form the week after next, we learned that 31% of parents of 9-16 year olds “worry a lot” about their child seeing inappropriate content, and at 30% it’s not so very different for the parents of teens.

About three months ago, in April, yet another survey, this time by YouGov, showed that vast numbers of parents continue not to want their children to have ready access to pornography on the internet.

The statistics have been telling the same story for a very long time. It is a story which aligns 100% with common sense and what almost all of us know in our bones.

How many more times do we need to collect and publish numbers like this before the problem is confronted in a decisive way? I am not against anyone doing more research, tracking changes or gathering any more evidence of what parents want and children need. However, if it turns out to be research that is little more than a delaying or a diversionary tactic frankly it has little to commend it.

Jumping through hoops

Parents also don’t want to have to jump through hoops to keep porn at bay. In 2011 in another EU Kids Online study recommendation 17 put it this way

Filtering technologies and parental control software need to be far more usable and transparent and take into accounts the needs of parents in order to improve uptake. 

The same survey found that use of filtering was very low: across the EU only 28% of parents said they had implemented it. In the UK it was higher, 54%, but still a long way off what one would expect given how many parents say they think it is a good idea. The researchers attributed this gap to parents finding the software to be

too complicated or ill-suited to their needs

They want simplicity and what could be simpler than default on? It is what the great majority of mobile phone users in the UK have been getting since 2004 and with no obvious ill effects.

If parents think about things a bit more they are clear they are concerned not just about pornography. They don’t want their children to access other age inappropriate stuff as well and if there is one problem with the way the debate on Bailey, Perry et al has gone it is that it has become fixated on the single issue of porn.

I am not saying for a minute that being concerned only or principally about porn is not legitimate. Of course it is. Anxieties about the early sexualization of children are of enormous concern to us all, whether or not we are parents.

If the net result of the discussions on Active Choice, per Bailey, is that we end up “only” with anti-porn filters being more widely used we will have made some sort of progress. No question. The SIP benchmark studies which have been measuring the effectiveness of a range of filtering products have repeatedly found that, while the software still needs to improve (a) it is getting better and (b) they are already quite good at detecting and blocking porn. This is not a pipe dream though nobody should ever argue any solution will ever be perfect. It’s about narrowing the angles, reducing the scope.

Plus ça change

As Tanya Byron’s comments suggest, debates about how best to deliver what parents want and children need have been going on for some time. I would say since Day 1 of the internet – which for these purposes, generously, let’s put at 1995.

ISPs tell us repeatedly that they offer free filtering software that parents do not take up and use, or that no one is jamming their customer care lines demanding filtering software or complaining that what they have doesn’t work very well.

I can think of many reasons why customers do not jump on the phone to their ISP and anyway the fact that people do not complain about something does not mean there isn’t a problem. But that aside is anyone seriously challenging the integrity or accuracy of the constant stream of surveys that keep coming up with remarkably similar results?

Talk Talk’s recent foray into this space has shown that if you actively promote and advertise filtering tools they will be taken up on a larger scale but anyway that, again, is not entirely the point: parents’ techno fear and lack of confidence provide all the explanation we need and underlines, once again, why whatever solution we come up with must be the easiest it could possibly be. There is no doubt what that is: on by default.

And what do we have to say about children in those families where parental engagement is currently zero and will remain so no matter what whistles and bells are attached to unavoidable screens? Just saying “bad luck” won’t do.

Greased lightning switches to Stevie Slowcoach

The internet industry is famed for the speed at which things can change. Not here though. Can do becomes can’t do. It is astonishing how tardy and conservative a business can become when it suits them, when for example they don’t immediately see how to make money out of something or they fear it will lose them money. Suddenly they lapse into techno babble, become dead keen on civil liberties or espouse views about the importance of encouraging parents to become more involved with their children.

I am sure that for many of the individuals involved when they speak that way they mean it sincerely, and there is definitely some substance in each of those points. But you just know this is not the whole story or even necessarily the most important part of it. 

The Prime Minister speaks

On 3rd May, as voters across the country were going to the polls to elect local Councillors, the lead story in the Daily Mail was all about the Prime Minister intervening

to insist a default block on porn, deactivated only when users make an active choice to have it switched off is put back on the table

I hadn’t been aware this idea had ever fallen off the table since Claire Perry put it there but it was good to know that is was again in its rightful place anyway. The Daily Mail wrote a leader comment praising Mr Cameron’s action. They were reading between the lines and assuming, as I imagine many other people did, that the PM favoured this stronger position.

The Mail story had put us under starter’s orders, and now we’re off. Last week the Government finally released their consultation paper on how to move forward.

Let the consultation begin

Because of other inescapable commitments I only finally sat down to read the paper in full the other night. And I groaned.

What should have been a discussion about some fairly simple ideas has been converted into a densely written information paper and a questionnaire which, together, add up to 34 pages spread across two Word documents. This combination, in other circumstances, might be imagined to be the beginnings of a PhD not a conversation with parents.

To be fair the larger of the two documents, the 26 page questionnaire, is not meant to be completed by everybody. Sections 2 – 4 run for 10 pages. They are directed “mainly” at “parents, and parenting and children’s charities.” The next eight pages are intended “mainly for businesses”.

By the way there is no way to avoid the Word documents. There is no web-based alternative you could use. To complete the questionnaire you must download it on to your machine, fill it in then upload it back to the Department of Education’s web site having first negotiated the hazards of Captcha.

User friendly? Calculated to make it as easy as possible for the maximum number of people to respond? No. I am going to show uncharacteristic restraint and say no more about this. Misplaced enthusiasm could be the explanation.

I will also refrain from commenting on the fact that the consultation is only 10 weeks long rather than the more usual 12. Let us disregard too the fact that much of the 10 weeks will be occupied by the months of July and August when many will be off with buckets and spades, when many organizations don’t meet at all.

Very important we all respond and encourage others to do so

We must all do our best to engage with the process. Please regard this blog as a clarion call. You can be absolutely certain that internet industry interests, who employ people full time just to deal with the Government, never mind their hired help in the form of lobbyists, will be encouraging and helping lots of their members and associates to pile in.

But I am coming to it with a heavy heart. We have massively complicated what is, in truth, or should have been an exceptionally straight forward business.

I have moments when I think parents would just like this sorted not debated but let’s accept for the moment that there was or is a case for consulting parents and the wider public on how best to deliver what they have repeatedly told us they want.  Couldn’t the key questions nonetheless have been crisply stated on the front page of the Government’s questionnaire, along with a clear statement about why they were being asked?

Question 10 on page 12

Not until we reach question 10  of the parents’ section, on page 12 of the questionnaire, are we presented with the options we have been reading about in the newspapers or been seeing or hearing on the TV and radio. Here is question 10

The following questions seek your views on the ways of helping parents keep children safe.

10 a) A system in which some internet content (for example, pornography) is automatically blocked for you by your internet service provider or by the smartphone or other device you use to access the internet and you can later ask them to remove the filters if you want to access the blocked websites.

Yes

No

Not Sure
Comments:

10 b) A system where you are automatically asked some questions about what you want your children to be able to access on the computer or other device (including pornography, but also including things like 15-rated films, information about drugs, and whether and when you’d like them to be able to access social networking sites). There would be no answers decided for you in advance (no defaults).

Yes

No

Not Sure
Comments:

10 c) A system that combines (a) and (b), where you are asked all these wider questions in (b), but where for some obviously harmful content (like pornography), some of the answers are ‘ticked’ for you in advance, so that if you don’t change the setting as you are going through the questions, the content is blocked. You would still be able to change the answer if you wanted to.

Yes

No

Not Sure
Comments:

I think this means (a) is Perry, (b) is Bailey and (c) is new.

It didn’t need to be this way

We could have put a single question in something like the following terms

Do you think that all internet access providers and manufacturers of any device that can connect to the internet should as closely as possible follow the example of most of Britain’s mobile phone companies and, by default, block access to adult content until the user has proved they are over 18 or, in the case of a legal minor, a parent has given them permission to access such material?

It’s a no-brainer.

Or imagine asking these questions

Are you OK with the fact that your children can gain ready and immediate access to hard core pornography and lots of other age inappropriate material on the internet?

and

Are you OK with how long it seems to be taking to achieve any substantial and lasting change in this space?

Maybe not but that is the sub-text.

I might also have been tempted to slip in an additional question

Given the glittering success of light touch and self regulation in the field of banking, and our recent experiences with BlackBerry devices and Habbo Hotel do you think we should simply leave industry alone and just ask them, in their own time, to send us a note when they’ve done whatever it is they think is best for us or do you think we have spent too long on this already?

The studied, scrupulous neutrality of the language, fair takes your breath away as we say in Yorkshire.

Bringing the internet nearer to life as we know it on Planet Earth

In Britain we have established a body of rules about what children should and shouldn’t get access to, should and should not be able to buy. We have rules about the need to prove one’s age before certain avenues are allowed to be open to minors. For those of us who have passed the threshold of 18 these rules can be irritating at times, but no more than that. They don’t amount to censorship and the rest of us accept them because we understand their intended purpose: to protect children.

These age-related rules were drawn up for good reasons. We know they don’t always work but that does not mean we abandon them or cease trying to get them to work as effectively as possible. Rules describe standards, norms and expectations. They shape people’s behaviour and attitudes. The absence of rules implies a licence or permission. The lengths we go to to try to enforce the rules and the severity of the penalties for breach show the level of seriousness attached to them. Why should the internet be any different? It doesn’t have to be.

Ah but!

The thing about change is you have to want it to happen before you will find ways to make it so. One of the great problems with the internet is that, because of its history, it has become bedevilled by ideological considerations which, in turn, have become overlaid with questions of economics and personal values. Many people think the internet ought to be this way rather than that. This blinds them to contrary opinions from people whose take on the internet is not cluttered by sentimental memories of how it used to be back in the day.

It is only in a room full of pointy heads that you would hear any sort of argument against doing something so obvious as trying to stop kids from reaching pornhub.com. I don’t want to prevent any adult who wants to go there from being able so to do. The children’s charities only ask that it shouldn’t be as easy for kids to do the same.

I think a great many internet businesses know that the current situation is not tenable in the long run but, right now, cash is tight, the medium term position is uncertain so delay and evasion seem like reasonable, even sensible strategies. If these same businesses also believe the Government lacks the resolve or the wherewithal to force the pace, perhaps because they have bigger fish to fry elsewhere, then Robert is your Mum’s brother. A pound spent tomorrow will cost a lot less than a pound spent today and, who knows, the spotlight might move on to another topic anyway, the Daily Mail could decide to get into saving Antarctic penguins. You might never have to do it at all.

Anything is possible

From a technical point of view it is not impossible for ISPs and device manufacturers to provide their service in a way which broadly reflects what the mobile companies have been doing for the past eight years. I have no idea how expensive it would be or how long it would take to implement it but it is not impossible. TalkTalk are very nearly at the perfect point. It would only need one further step for them to be garlanded in unqualified glory in the eyes of the child protection agencies. And there are probably easier and cheaper ways of doing it  e.g. all the controls with individual log ins for each family member could be put on the router not up on the network.  Far fewer risks all round.

But cost has never been raised as an objection within my hearing. Part of the problem, yet again, is that this whole process is too intimately tied up with the machinations of Government and politics. We need to shift these sorts of debates about detail away from such a heavily political environment. Parliament must set the policy. We live in a democracy and we elect people to look after the public interest. Absolutely. But after the policy framework has been settled we need a trusted third party that can handle complex issues and reach a reasonable view that the country as a whole will accept as sensible.

So here’s another question we could ask

Do you believe Parliament should give Ofcom or some other impartial, trusted body the power to require ISPs and device manufacturers to keep age inappropriate material away from children?

Pretty sure I know what the answer would be.

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 a appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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