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Internet Safety – where do you stand?

Tom O’Hagan of Virtual1

The war of words between the Government and UK ISPs over internet safety filters is developing into a full blown stand-off. Tom O’Hagan discusses the issues.

David Cameron has been clear in his demand that all new broadband accounts are automatically installed with family friendly settings and that ISPs must contact existing accounts, to filter legal pornography and other adult subjects ‘by default’. Under this government directive the filters would also have to be applied to all public wi-fi access points.

But the leak of a recent letter from the Department of Education to the four largest ISPs setting out a list of demands has now inflamed the already contentious issue, with the government’s heavy-handed approach both alienating and exasperating the telco industry.

And when you dig down into the problem, it’s easy to see why.

Firstly, there are the different approaches to filtering – should it be a network level filter or software filter? Which is more effective? Which is less intrusive? There seems to be no clear delineation on this.

Then, there is there issue of timeframe. Introducing any sort of filter system would mean most ISPs needing to purchase costly equipment or having to create a filter system – both routes requiring additional resource and budget. Unsurprising then that many smaller ISPs have clearly stated that they cannot comply within the timeframes proposed.

But the biggest issue is an overall cynicism that internet filters are either required or effective. The hard fact is that no filter is perfect, with many examples of existing filter systems either allowing through items that are disguised, or simply just not picked up, or, conversely, blocking innocent material because of misinterpretation. The news is littered with examples of internet censorship that borders on the ludicrous. One case that caught my eye recently was when a filtering service applied to the British Library was shown to be blocking examples of classic literature because the content was offensive or too violent. In one case an author, doing research, was blocked from accessing an online version of Hamlet, as the text contained “violent content”. Glorious.

What’s more many experts and industry advisors believe that applying such filters in this way is pointless and counter-productive. These include leading academics and, ironically, the man the government chose to examine the issue, Reg Bailey, of the Mothers’ Union. He’s dubious about their effectiveness and would prefer parents to be more active in understanding the dangers their children face when going online.

And if you look to see how other countries are tackling the problem – since it is a worldwide issue – you find that many have abandoned attempts to impose similar regulation. In Australia, the government recently failed to implement its mandatory internet filter policy last year amid criticism it would: not be effective, be costly, slow down services and involve too much censorship.

So whilst the government may wish for compulsory pornography and obscenity internet filters, they would have great difficulty in getting such an act through Parliament with civil liberties groups stepping in to prevent such censorship. And as many  ISPs have neither the available resource nor the will to implement such proposals, without legislation they would be under no legal obligation to comply – only a moral obligation backed by government pressure.

And it appears – from the leaked letter – that this is the approach the government is taking, supported by various child welfare and parental support groups demanding protection from our children.

I find this approach the most antagonising of all – to suggest that our industry is not interested in protecting children from some of the true horrors that are available on the internet is at the very least frustrating, at worst incredibly insulting.

However, I have to admit that the lack of clear and singular response from our own industry has not really helped matters and has led to real confusion about where the industry stands. Some ISPs are promoting self-regulation, others are rejecting it out of hand as intrusive censorship; some are saying it can be done – and easily, others are saying it is simply not possible to run internet filters effectively; some are saying opt in – the ‘Active Choice’, whilst others are at least in principle willing to support the ‘default on’ position the government is demanding.

The issue of filtering isn’t going to go away; for me, I believe that the way filters are applied is key to self-regulation. The ‘Active Choice’ proposal, from ISPs, asks customers to make informed decisions about the level of filtering they wish to apply. In this way consumers, and particularly parents, are forced to take responsibility for their own actions and decisions.

Surely this has to be the ideal situation – applying a blanket filter allows consumers to wash their hands of responsibility and lay the blame for any problems with either the government or ISPs, or both. Making them take informed decisions for themselves puts the ball fairly and squarely in their court. And, surely, any right-minded adult would welcome the opportunity to make such a choice for themselves, and their family?

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