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December 20, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

Confusion over parental Internet controls

Will filters be default on, off or something else?


Five days ago, the Department for Education announced a very reasonable approach to child protection online. Their plan was to make sure parents are supported in making easier, more informed decisions about how to keep their children safe online.

This was based on a consultation that focused on evidence, engagement with stakeholders and soliciting to the views of parents and industry.

But today the Prime Minister is singing a different tune. His article in the Daily Mail today suggests he is taking a more restrictive line, and that he wants to see 'default on' filtering. This has created a lot of confusion, seemingly just to satisfy the Daily Mail's editorial whims. Are they really to be the drivers of Internet policy?

So, what is actually happening? Is this a 5 day policy about-turn?

The Prime Minister is to some extent just describing the approach already set out but in more aggressive terms. However, there are a couple of things to get concerned about:

1. The complexity of the system he seems to be advocating. The Prime Minister has laid out some quite detailed specifications defining how filtering tools should work - with some confusion about what will be on or off by default. 

2. Claire Perry MP has been appointed to lead the implementation of these policies. She has led the campaign for default-on filters. This suggests Government want to do more than help parents make choices about online safety, and want to start taking those decisions for them.

The issue here is whether the Government mandates a specific technology and specific options for consumers, especially where those are on by default.

The available evidence (for example, the EU Kids Online project), does not support moves to implement a default 'on' Internet filters, and suggests that technical measures such as filtering are not effective as a means to prevent children's exposure to risk online. Filters can also give parents a false sense of security and often, through error, overreach or abuse, lead to the blocking of legal and legitimate content.

There are plenty of filtering tools available. According to Ofcom, 46% of parents use them and only a small percentage of those that do not say this is down to lack of awareness or technical skills. The majority of people do not support default on filtering. (See our fact sheet on parental Internet controls.)  

Parents should instead be supported, to help them make easier decisions about what is right for their families. We hoped that the Department's initial response on Friday showed the Government understood this.

The Department for Education arrived at a very reasonable and welcome position:

"...the offer to parents should be reformulated in a way that ensures that children can be given the levels of protection their parents think is appropriate for them, reduces the risk of uninterested parents avoiding online safety issues, and does not impose a solution on adult users or non-parents."

Today's announcement leaves everyone confused - parents, ISPs, the public and probably the Departments who thought they were in charge of policy making.

There are legal and practical reasons why government policy goes through public consultation, and why responses are outlined through official channels. If the government has something specific in mind, then then the place for an announcement is not a newspaper opinion piece. The 3,600 people who responded to the consultation, and received a response from the DfE with a clear reaction, haven't been told of any further shifts.

An article in the Daily Mail simply doesn't mean anything official. We're all left guessing what's going on.

We will be asking for clarification on what is actually happening as soon as possible.

Here is our fact sheet on online parental controls.
Here is our submission to the consultation on parental controls. 


Mobile filtering, and demonstrating the problem with default filters

A leader in the Sunday Times (note: subscription required) wondered aloud why the Government had shunned a 'neat' solution to online pornography. They argued that the evidence of risks associated with mobile use demonstrated the need for default filtering of the internet:

"A report from Professor Andy Phippen of Plymouth University, published last week, showed that 40% of children under 12 have seen pornographic images online. As an article in News Review today explains, this hugely colours their attitudes towards sex — and not in a good way. Many girls are being pressurised into underage sex by boys who have themselves been extensively exposed to gross sexual images."

First, there is no such statistic in the NSPCC report. The report found that for year 6 pupils there "is little evidence in our groups to suggest that these children were exposed to sexualised content, or asked to self generate." The report does cover some very important issues with the sharing of sexual material amongst young people, often related to self-generated images.

It's worth actually reading the report, which is preferable to just repeating something you were told about it.

Second, the article fails to note there is already default Internet blocking on mobile networks.

This is a mistake repeated by the Daily Mail. They say:

"concerns remain about how the Government plans to address children accessing porn via their own smartphones"

These articles help to demonstrate two things.

First, the limitations of default internet blocking. (On a related note, see our recent post on mobile networks' blocking of a church's website and our report, published in May this year jointly with LSE Media Policy Project, on how mobile internet filtering gets it wrong). 

Second, the campaign for 'default on' filtering is based more on assumptions than the evidence of the problem, the tools available and what they can do.

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