What is the Government’s online child protection policy?

 I would prefer to be writing an article with a headline that doesn’t have a question mark at the end. But the Government seems to determined to confuse and frustrate those wishing to understand their position on parental controls and Internet filtering. 

 A month ago we had a clear idea – a response from government that said no to default on filtering
Now it seems there is a very real danger that the Government will abandon this reasonable policy (which is barely a month old) and look at default on censorship. Ed Vaizey MP yesterday gave a speech suggesting that ‘Protection will automatically be on if parents don’t make choices’. He promised a white paper later in the year that could be the vehicle for this policy. 

A little background. In December the Department for Education published its response to the consultation about online parental controls. In it they set out a pretty reasonable position, broadly supporting the idea that parents are best placed to make decisions about the protections necessary in their household, and should be supported in doing so.

We were quite pleased that the Government had seemingly listened to the views of the consultation respondents, looked at the available evidence and come to a decent policy position. They would not be mandating ‘on by default’ Internet filtering.

Only a few days later the Prime Minister soured the mood in an article for the Daily Mail, suggesting that in fact the Government would pursue a much stricter line. It was lightning quick policy scrambling. Whilst he didn’t explicitly mention default on filtering, he did say two things that set alarm bells ringing. As we pointed out at the time:

1. A complex technical solution. He 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. He appointed Claire Perry MP to lead the implementation of these policies. This is like putting Julian Assange in charge of implementing extradition policy. She has led the campaign for default-on filters, and with the Daily Mail have a sort of neo Mary Whitehouse campaign under way. Putting her in charge gives a strong suggestion that someone in Government wants to do more than help parents make choices about online safety and want to start taking those decisions for them.

Ed Vaizey’s speech goes further in explicitly saying that if parents dont make a choice filters will be on, and suggesting that these ideas will be laid put in a White Paper. Internet filters block too much – health sites, shops, personal blogs, political sites, restaurants and bars, community forums. They do not simply catch pornography but involve businesses making subjective decisions about what is appropriate for young people of all ages, including things like ‘esoteric behaviour’.

The filters take decisions about what is right for a family or household out of parents’ hands. In mandating default on ISP filters, the Government would be helping create an infrastructure of censorship that would be ripe for abuse and prone to mistakes. And such filters do nothing to help with some of the serious issues related to ‘sexting’ that were researched by Professor Andy Phippen in his work for NSPCC.

The Government was on the right track. They had listened to the evidence and looked like they would help parents make their own decisions about managing their children’s safety online. It should not change direction because the Daily Mail, whose hypocrisy in the search for sales and clicks is obvious, felt they had more mileage in it. 

We shall be seeking clarification as soon as possible.