A tortuous tale

 

Before the 2010 General Election the Byron Review had become both a bible and a handbook for online child protection in the UK. It was the product of a substantial amount of research and consultation. A world first. All the major political parties in Britain endorsed it.

Even so towards the end of the last Government’s time in office it was rapidly becoming clear that the whole online child safety initiative was starting to falter. Important recommendations made by Byron as far back as March, 2008 were not moving forward, not even by an inch e.g. we were still no nearer establishing independent monitoring and review mechanisms to confirm that the promises companies appeared to be making about online child safety were in fact being acted upon.

It felt like we were wading through treacle all the time. Was this just the inevitable consequence of the loss of political authority and demoralisation that had set in among Labour Ministers as it became ever clearer that Gordon Brown’s Government was on its last legs and heading for defeat? Either way the entire project needed a kick in the pants. After the General Election it got one.

A fresh start

Prior to the election David Cameron had made several speeches in which he had referred to online child safety, promising strong action if the Tories won. Tim Loughton MP had been Shadow Children’s Minister for several years before the election. People knew him and respected him. He too was known to be keen on the online child safety agenda.

After the election David Cameron, now Prime Minister, was as good as his word. He asked Reg Bailey to address the broader question of the early sexualization of children and made clear that within it the internet dimension was a key component. Loughton was appointed Children’s Minister in the new Government. All this was very reassuring.

Reg’s appointment was announced on 6th December, 2010. The “Bailey Review” was published and handed to the Prime Minister in June 2011. Immediately following publication there was a letter to Reg from the Prime Minister then a fuller statement was made by Sarah Teather MP and laid in the library of the House of Commons on 7th June. The Government endorsed the findings and recommendations of the Bailey Review.

The Byron Report remains a key source document for the Government. The Bailey Review does not contradict or conflict with it in any material way. Bailey’s focus was slightly different but in all relevant areas where they overlap Bailey and Byron are pretty much on all fours.

Introducing Active Choice

Among Bailey’s key recommendations was something we now refer to as “Active Choice”. The actual words were:

To provide a consistent level of protection across all media, as a matter of urgency, the internet industry should ensure that customers must make an active choice over what sort of content they want to allow their children to access. To facilitate this, the internet industry must act decisively to develop and introduce effective parental controls, with Government regulation if voluntary action is not forthcoming within a reasonable timescale.

Note the word urgency and the reference to the possibility of Government regulation. Byron used very similar terms. Active Choice delivered within a reasonable timeframe has been Government policy since June last year. It still is.

A question of realpolitik

The children’s charities welcomed Active Choice. Some of us had seen a version that one of the ISPs was planning to implement. It looked a bit fiddly but there is no doubt that, as we saw things at the time, if something like that was fully implemented by all of Britain’s ISPs and, above all, if it was properly marketed and promoted, it would represent a significant step forward. But I have to say our support for Active Choice was a little lukewarm being largely based on an assessment of what we saw as the realpolitik.

During Byron and again during the discussions around Bailey the children’s charities in CHIS had argued for a stronger position. We wanted an acceptance of the principle that access to age inappropriate materials would be unavailable, off by default, from the beginning. In other words we wanted something that mirrored as near as possible what the UK’s mobile phone companies had been doing since 2004, with no obvious ill effects either in terms of free speech or corporate profitability.

But it was made perfectly clear time and time again that the industry were almost universally dead set against. Most of them didn’t even want Active Choice. It is to Reg Bailey’s and the Government’s great credit that they wouldn’t budge on that and when various industry leaders finally understood this they caved but it was not always obvious that they would. Even so I think many people got Active Choice fixed in their head as being a softer, weaker option. As ever the devil is in the detail and having thought this through a bit further I am now no longer quite as convinced that this is true, although that may be for a rather surprising reason. Read on.

The point anyway is that, as things were then being presented, as a stark choice between tough and not so tough , there seemed to be zero political will to push further than Active Choice in the direction of what the mobile phone companies were doing. The last Government had backed off at the same point. It looked like it was going to be the same with the new one. Most of us concluded we would just have to hunker down and make the best of it.

In Downing Street

Four months after the Bailey Review came out there was a meeting with the Prime Minister in Downing Street. On 11th October, 2011, the PM personally conducted a review of action taken up to that point on implementing Bailey. I was there. The Prime Minister’s passion for the subject was very much in evidence. He’s a Dad with young kids, why wouldn’t he be passionate about it?

The “Big Four” ISPs – BT, Virgin, Sky and Talk Talk – told the Prime Minister they had been meeting to discuss Active Choice and that by October, 2012, a year hence, they would all have some version of it in place. Indeed by then Talk Talk was already well off the mark. The outcome of the Downing Street meeting was summarised in a letter dated 10th November, 2011.

So where are we now on all this?

After the Downing Street meeting things went chugging along. Active Choice was the only show in town, but evidently we were not the only people who were feeling a little underwhelmed by it. Smaller ISPs were complaining they had been excluded from the discussions with the Big Four. It was not obvious why.

Our underlying, historic frustrations at this point began to be revived and magnified simply by how long everything was taking. It felt like we were back into wading through treacle. Talk Talk aside we were moving in hazy slow motion. 

For example the focus of discussions up to then had been solely with the Big Four ISPs and how they  would deal with new customers. But the installed base of existing customers is gigantic. Could it be that existing customers would get nothing? It proved difficult to get any promises or clarity about what any of the companies were proposing to do. The children’s organizations did not feel they could ignore this aspect or leave it as a trivial side issue which could be resolved later. The companies’ tardiness, their evident reluctance to say anything about existing customers reinforced a growing feeling about the industry’s failure to embrace the moment.

The political climate begins to change

The winds slowly started blowing more favourably in a new and more radical direction. This was down to Claire Perry MP and an all-Party Group of Parliamentarians which she assembled. They all began beavering away, holding public hearings, taking evidence about the easy availability of hard core pornography online, the harm pornography could do and was doing to children and what technical and other means were available to combat it.

Some major internet players refused to appear before Perry’s all-Party Group. Big mistake. This contributed to the negative perceptions of an industry that was responding  with grudging bad grace. Undoubtedly that was unfair on some players but not all. No one for a minute believed every key player in the industry had their hearts in this and therefore lots of people, particularly in Parliament, started to believe not very much would come of it. Unless they intervened. Which they then did with spectacular effect.

Perry reports

When Claire Perry’s all-Party Group reported in April, 2012, they proposed something which appeared to go a lot further than Active Choice, and that is definitely how it was picked up and reported in the media. Perry used the mobile phone companies as an example of best practice.

Here are the words:

The Government should launch a formal consultation on the introduction of an Opt-In content filtering system for all internet accounts in the UK.

Perry was represented in the media as proposing that pornography and other age inappropriate materials should be turned off by default, meaning that anyone wanting access would “actively” have to opt-in to get at them.

By contrast Bailey’s position was presented as being much weaker meaning everything, including pornography, would be available unless you “actively” chose to turn it off.

In fact, on closer examination, the differences between these two positions are more apparent than real.

Perry also picked up on the importance of tackling WiFi. Inexplicably this was not mentioned at all in Reg’s report, at least not directly. Byron had referred to it so you could say it was already on the record and therefore Reg felt no need to repeat the point.

They are a lot closer than you might think

Both Perry and Bailey anticipate and require an unavoidable screen to appear the first time you turn on your new computer or other internet enabled device or when you log on for the first time to a new broadband account at home.

So is this how it would look on the respective first screens?

Perry

Dear Parent,

Filters have been installed on this machine. The filters are designed to keep a range of harmful and age inappropriate content away from children and young people. More information about exactly the kind of content covered by the filters can be found if you click here. It includes things like pornography and web sites that promote self-harm.

The filters are already turned on. Do you want to keep them turned on for all users of this computer or would you like to modify or remove the settings for some users?

Bailey

Dear Parent,

Filters have been installed on this machine. The filters are designed to keep a range of harmful and age inappropriate content away from children and young people. More information about exactly the kind of content covered by the filters can be found if you click here. It includes things like pornography and web sites that promote self-harm.

The filters have not been turned on. Do you want to turn them on for all users of this computer or would you like to modify or remove the settings for some users?

In both cases there are three possible but essentially identical answers

Perry

Yes I want the filters to stay on for all users of this computer, or

Yes I want the filters to stay on this computer but I want to modify or remove them for some users, or

No thanks. I do not want any of the filters you have offered to be available to any user of this computer.

Bailey

Yes I want the filters to be turned on for all users of this computer, or

Yes I want the filters to be turned on for this computer but I want to modify or remove them for some users

No thanks. I do not want any of the filters you have offered to be available to any user of this computer.

The above could be represented by three big, brightly coloured buttons on the screen. One mouse click gets everything started.

I’d say the differences between Bailey and Perry are therefore vanishing small. It’s the difference between “do you want them to stay on?” and “do you want them turned on?”. This is not a great gulf or chasm. Makes you wonder what all the fuss is about.

In both cases, in effect, everything is blocked at the beginning. You cannot get anything from the internet, not even a Mickey Mouse cartoon, until you have answered the questions that appear on the first screen.

Arguably therefore both Perry and Bailey are variants of Opt-In or default on. For many people who are not familiar with this world it has all seemed terribly confusing at times. Confusion is bad. It turns people off. Convinces them that all this techno stuff is just “too hard”. It isn’t. But sometimes people make it seem that way, and not always innocently.

What exactly is everyone arguing about then?

The way this issue was reported in parts of the media oversimplified things to the point where it has become positively misleading. Maybe we should all have sat down together and worked through the actual processes that any and all of the options would entail. Water under the bridge now.

I favour Perry on the marginal ground that saying the filters are already on and working invites people just to say, in effect, OK I’ll stick with that. I believe that will be slightly less of a worry than saying I’ll ask for that software to be loaded. Either way it is possible that with a single click of a mouse all of the filters can be made to vanish or they can be made to fall into place.

The age verification component

The final and often unspoken complication in this area is the question of age verification. Both Bailey and Perry recommend it.

Here are Perry’s words on the subject:

Several key design and implementation issues would need to be addressed, including a workable age-verification interface and the need to design a granular permissioning system so that households can maintain different levels of access for different family members.

In other words for certain classes of content in order to be able to access it the account holder would have to be able to demonstrate that they are 18 or above. Once again Perry is in effect is advocating something the UK’s mobile phone companies have been doing for over eight years.

And here are Reg’s words

In addition, those providing content which is age-restricted, whether by law or company policy, should seek robust means of age verification as well as making it easy for parents to block underage access.

True enough Reg is here speaking to content providers rather than ISPs but the intention is clear enough. Byron also speaks at various points in her text about the potential of age verification to make a contribution to online child safety.

What happened next?

Following the publication of Perry’s report the Daily Mail decided to get behind it in a big way. Other media outlets also gave the report a fair degree of support. This was a development of enormous political significance.

At this stage Claire’s proposal still had no official status. It was floating in the ether. That changed on 3rd May when, as the country was going to the polls to elect local Councils, the Prime Minister indicated that he now wanted a further consultation to take place on the whole filtering question. He said expressly that Claire’s proposal was to be included as an option. The future of Active Choice was put in doubt. A new vista opened up.

The Daily Mail’s support for Claire, though greatly appreciated and welcome, did have the slightly undesirable effect of making everyone think she and her all-Party group were only interested in or concerned about pornography. They weren’t.

The Daily Mail’s campaign is called Block Online Porn. The pornography angle always was and certainly is a major driver but in Perry’s, as in Bailey’s final recommendations it is clear they both see pornography as simply one among several different kinds of undesirable, age inappropriate content that kids should not be able to access so easily.

The bombshell

So the Prime Minister’s 3rd May announcement was a bit of a bombshell. Perry’s idea was now officially in play. At least one big ISP is known to have said since there is now renewed uncertainty they were going to suspend any further action until matters were resolved.

There were a number of informal discussions about how this new consultation that the PM had launched might be taken forward and a paper finally appeared on 28th June setting out its terms. However, the very next day in the Daily Mail, details of a leaked email emerged.

The email was from an internet industry lobbyist. The lobbyist was reassuring Britain’s internet service providers that, following discussions he said he had had with civil servants, he was able to “confirm”that the consultation was a stunt, a sham. He suggested the Government was only going through the motions because of David Cameron’s speech on 3rd May but there was no intention anywhere to shift away from Bailey’s original form of Active Choice. There was no need for anyone to worry about Perry. It’s a dead duck. It is deceased. It is no more.

The unfortunate way in which the consultation had been set up did not automatically allay various anxieties about the Government’s seriousness in relation to it. I have already written about this in an earlier blog so I won’t repeat myself here.

Yet I must record that when I spoke to them the civil servants were adamant that there was absolutely no truth in or foundation to the contents of the leaked email. They insist the consultation is completely genuine. Earlier this week, at a meeting of the Executive Board of UKCCIS, Home Office Minister Lynn Featherstone MP gave a categorical assurance that Ministers were most certainly open to the possibility that the consultation process could lead to a change of policy.

The third way

Incidentally in the consultation paper a third option is presented. Neither Perry nor Bailey. In reality, as I see it, it is the same as Perry but with more words on the first page to spell out what is being blocked and giving you the options then and there about what categories you might keep or discard.

But even with this third way no one can get anything from the internet until they have been through that mandatory first page. Thus with all three options you have to search hard to discern a truly profound difference. Anyone who suggests there is a big ditch into which many battalions will dive and choose to die needs to get a grip of themselves.

Moreover none of the options are any more or less likely than any other to promote or encourage greater parental interaction with their child on the matter of online safety. Equally no option is more or less likely to promote or encourage a false sense of security about what filters can achieve, is no more or less likely to promote or encourage “teachable moments” in the home. Those sorts of things are determined much more by questions of design, layout, the frequency of follow up emails, the use of pop-ups, updates and the like.

We shall see

We know that large and very influential companies with excellent access to Downing Street and Ministers across the Government are strongly against Perry’s position even though, as we have seen, there is little to choose between it and the other two on offer.

We know the industry’s lobbyists are on the case. We face an uphill struggle to mobilise our constituency over this Olympic Summer. The closing date for the consultation is 6th September. But we will do our best. Most of the children’s charities are rooting for Perry’s position, option (a) at question 10 of the consultation document, and they are doing so for the same reasons I gave earlier.

There is going to be a specially convened meeting of the UKCCIS Board on 17th September to consider all of the responses and evidence received during the consultation. I imagine an announcement of the Government’s final position will follow sometime shortly thereafter. I am looking forward to it.

I very much hope the Government does not prolong the uncertainty by saying that the issue of how to improve the use and take up of parental controls or family safety settings will be decided in the context of wider regulatory and related matters following the publication of the Communications Bill. What parents want and children need has been clear for a very long time. Kicking it into the long grass again should not be an option.

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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