The Independent View: only 24 hours left to have your say on adult filtering

Default blocking of online adult material is a controversial and illiberal policy, which has attracted criticism from plenty of Liberal Democrats – and rightly so. Default Internet censorship takes decisions about what is appropriate for families and households out of parents’ hands. In the process the Government would be constructing an infrastructure of censorship that will be inefficient, error-ridden and open to abuse.

Default blocking will mean the Government and technology companies, rather than parents, deciding what is ‘appropriate’ for children and young people. Filtering can give parents a false sense of security and also inevitably leads to the the ‘wrong’ content being blocked. Filtering at the ‘network level’ would make it easier for future governments to censor more content. And according to research led by Professor Sonia Livingstone at the LSE, blocking also doesn’t really work as a way of protecting children from risk online.

But default, network level Internet blocking is exactly what is proposed in the Department for Education’s consultation, closing this Thursday. Despite these problems, a campaign led by a religious group and Claire Perry MP, via the Daily Mail, has succeeded in convincing the Government that default filtering might be necessary.

The case for default censorship is made in the name of ‘protecting the children’. But this is a clumsy response to these concerns.

Blocking anything that might be loosely categorised as ‘adult’ is an extremely damaging approach.

We should not trust commercial network providers alone to control access to information.

For example, the consultation mentions the danger of children discovering websites which promote anorexia or self-harm – but as these words will be used to filter and classify websites, the support groups for these same health issues would frequently find themselves blocked.

For both children and adults, sites such as clubs, bars, discussion forums, support groups for sexual minorities and educational websites will most likely fall under the all-consuming ‘adult’ filter, as they do with mobile today.

Filtering already happens by default on mobile networks. Open Rights Group has a growing list of harmless, miscategorised sites. Our report on this, published jointly with LSE Media Policy project, showed that all sorts of legitimate, non-adult content gets caught.

We’ve found church and community sites, health advice sites, campaign sites, a website about things that can be put on a shelf, and technology news sites have been blocked with no good reason. Coadec, an organisation supporting digital businesses, found Orange considered they were unsuitable for children earlier this year.

Challenging a block means contacting the ISP – a process which, as we have already seen with mobile phone blocking, is difficult to pursue and frustrating.

It is also important to remember that anyone who wants to bypass the filter will be able to. It will be no obstacle for anybody with sufficient technical skill to with use Google to find many, simple ways to get round blocking.

This points to a need for more parental responsibility and engagement with children; not less. Effective communication and parental engagement is the most effective way of managing the risks children face online, supported by the appropriate tools where necessary. But “default blocking” at the network level is likely to encourage parents to feel that the problem is dealt with, and conversations do not need to be had.

To stand up against default censorship is also to recognise the rights of the child. Like Child Rights International Network, we believe in the rights of the child to information and education.  When choosing filtering technology, adults and children need to be involved in a conversation. “Defaults” take us away from this.

We are not advocating some free for all, or ignoring that there are all sorts of risks and inappropriate content that parents rightly want to make sure their children avoid. Parents should be supported and educated to help them make the best decisions about what is appropriate for their own family.

A market is developing to offer tools to help them do this, and the government should be working with industry and parents to ensure there is clear information, guidance and advice about what is available.

If the government mandate a particular technology, they will be making a significant and inhibiting intervention into an emerging market. There are device settings, apps, services like OpenDNS, browser plug ins, or routers available to parents. Deciding that ISPs will give everyone a network filter might harm the funding and development of better and more appropriate tools.

We urge you to email the consultation team now to explain why default blocks and compulsory network filters are the wrong answer.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Jim Killock is the Executive Director of Open Rights Group

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13 Comments

  • ‘The rights of the child to education and information’ Indeed, when was porn under either of those categories?
    ‘Parental responsibility and engagement with children’, well that only works in certain households who probably filter anyway, what about vulnerable children who have no responsible adult influences, do we just forget about our responsibility to them as the wider part of society??
    I am all for liberal principles and how good they make me feel, but life is complex and difficult and children should be protected from this stuff. You want to watch it, then buy into it, no-one is banning it. I see no freedoms being abused here in balance to the protecting of children seeing sexually explicit sometimes violent and always inappropriate images.
    We worry about how boys and young men treat girls in their relationships. We worry abut childrens’ self image, abuse, anorexia, early sexualisation of youngsters, Jo Swinson is running a tireless campaign against distorted body-image and expectations of young girls. For heaven’s sake, do I need to draw the parallels?
    Time to man up, draw a very definite line and say, no this is wrong and all possible tactics must be used to stop it happening.

  • Time to man up, draw a very definite line and say, no this is wrong and all possible tactics must be used to stop it happening.

    Gail doesn’t mean “all possible tactics”, of course. This is the problem.

    I could guarantee that no child would ever see porn – start a nuclear war and wipe out all human life on Earth. Easy.

    And this is the problem with this proposal: it’s an inaccurate sledgehammer to crack a nut. It will do immense damage by censoring all sorts of perfectly legitimate bits of the internet by mistake, while simultaneously failing to block the things that many people would want to block.

    The whole point of this article is not “parents should let their children look at this stuff”, but “this proposal won’t work and will do a load of damage to freedom of speech into the bargain”. It blocks the wrong things, ineffectively.

  • “what about vulnerable children who have no responsible adult influences, do we just forget about our responsibility to them as the wider part of society??”

    Why the entire UK internet should be censored because there may be some irresponsible parents, I do not understand. If we go by that logic we should get rid of the watershed, because some parents may allow their children to watch TV post watershed. And we should ban the sale of 50 shades of grey, because not all parents can be trusted to hide their mommy porn form their children.

    There is a balance, and as a society we seek to create a save adult environment for children (high street or advertisement), without dumping our entire life down to CBBC standard.

    Those who sell stuff which is age restricted by law, such as pornography or alcohol, have a legal responsibility to not sell to minors (online this would occur through age verification at website level). Other “adult content” is not illegal, presumably because as a society we have decided this type of content is ok. It should not be left to an ISP or software company to decide for us what content is appropriate for our children.

    The other problem with a default “adult content” filter for UK internet is that you only have one setting – so presumably that will have to be set at pre-teen level. And parents who have teenagers would probably get that default filter disabled and instead install an age appropriate net nanny on their computer.

  • Richard Gadsden, thank-you, because yes I don’t really mean ‘all possible tactics’ to imply anything extreme, but whilst I do understand the problems of other, legitimate things being accidentally caught up in this process, I am asking what do we think is our responsibility when it comes to children? Not all come from caring, attentive environments, surely the balance of benefit is on the side of stopping pornography being accessed without an opting in process and thus protecting children compared to standing up for the rights of breast feeding groups and a couple of church sites? Are children so low in our values that we cast their needs aside for groups which can get round these things?

    There are immense problems in society from the early sexualisation, abuse and brutalisation of children and pornography is a contributory factor, no-one addresses these issues who is against this, all they ever talk about is the freedom of other groups who may get caught up in this.

    As a Lib Dem it is odd to argue against freedoms, but I feel we have to see the damage to children and create a society where we look after them, goodness knows, we have concerns about children’s mental and physical health(self-abuse in teenage girls, anorexia, bulimia) the pressures on them from constant bombardment of images of body and behaviour. We need to strike a balance, and just occasionally as I said just say no, this is wrong, pornography can be seen fine, but with extra mechanisms in place to deter access by children.

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Sep '12 - 7:33pm

    surely the balance of benefit is on the side of stopping pornography being accessed

    Stop right there.

    The balance of benefit is on giving each and every living person their own private castle, servants, and lands to supply them with food.

    But much like “stopping pornography being accessed”, this is impossible, and flailing around in attempts to make it happen will cause massive harm.

    People have been trying to “stop pornography” for decades, and every single one of those people has failed. These blocking systems do not work.

    We don’t even need to worry about whether or not there is a balance of benefits here when there aren’t any benefits at all, because the system fails to accomplish the one thing it’s intended to do, leaving us with a system that only causes harm.

    (Incidentally, all the evidence of history is that we’ve never had pornography blocking and teenagers have looked at a lot of pornography and it doesn’t seem to have caused any real harm, so the argument for preventing this is pretty damn thin)

    There are immense problems in society from the early sexualisation, abuse and brutalisation of children and pornography is a contributory factor

    Citation needed.

    Are children so low in our values that we cast their needs aside for groups which can get round these things?

    Children are the ones who can get round these things easily.

  • If someone wants to find something they will find it, if it appears on their screen by chance when they don’t want to see it they will click it away.
    The problem arises with the curiosity element, children are curious and will become confused about the word if their questions are not answered. Wise parents are normal about their own bodies and talk frankly to their growing children about theirs, answering all questions honestly and without embarrassment. So to a child growing up in a healthy balanced environment ‘porn’ is either weird or amusing, how else do you react to a woman with inflated breasts or a man who wants to show his prowess to the camera. Mary Whitehouse is alive and well..

  • Stuart Mitchell 6th Sep '12 - 6:53pm

    Gail Bones: Excellent post, I thoroughly agree.

    Those who are wailing about civil liberties are overlooking the fact that the proposed filter is entirely optional, hence the civil liberties implications are nil. Users who find they can’t access their favourite shelving-related website (yeah, rilly) can just pick up the phone and tell their ISP to turn the filter off. This is no hammer blow against our precious freedoms; at worst it’s a minor inconvenience.

    As a society we have kind of sleep-walked in to this situation. Content which would be illegal for a licensed sex shop to sell to an adult (e.g. rape-as-entertainment) is available on tap to kids on the web. We don’t expect parents to single-handedly stop their kids going into sex shops (parents rely on the law and the shop-owners to help them do that), but when it comes to on-line porn, any suggestion that parents might benefit from a bit of regulatory help is attacked as a threat to all our liberties.

    Jim: You acknowledge that stopping kids from accessing porn is a decent aim. Do you have any realistic suggestions for how this might be done? You are right that the proposed filter would have massive flaws, but if that’s all that’s on offer for now then it does seem to me that it’s better to have it than not; it would have a positive impact on a great many children.

    Oh, and this bit made me smile: “There are device settings, apps, services like OpenDNS, browser plug ins, or routers available to parents.”

    I can just imagine the look of total befuddlement on my wife’s face if I asked her to use any of the above methods to control our kids’ web access! The tech savvy just can’t appreciate that there are millions of parents out there who would struggle with any filtering system more technical than removal of the power cord. The industry is letting these parents down. Many of them probably have no idea exactly what kind of stuff is freely available. Do ISPs warn them? Some sort of network-level filtering would be a boon to many of them. A reliable filter may well be difficult to achieve, but in the week when the most detailed map yet of the human genome has been published, I don’t accept that an efficient porn filter is beyond the wits of man.

    Porn for adults is fine – I applauded the last Labour government when they legalised hard-core stuff. But giving kids unrestricted access to a limitless library of (often extreme and violent) porn is a new and unwelcome development, and one doesn’t have to be Mary Whitehouse to be concerned by it.

  • Stuart Mitchell 7th Sep '12 - 7:18pm

    Jim:

    What I would like to see happen, very simply, is for porn to be as freely available as possible to adults, and as difficult to get hold of as possible for children – particularly the more extreme stuff which is so widely available on the web, and (despite what Andrew might think) is in a wholly different category to the kind of tame pubic-hair shots that teenagers of past generations used to sneak furtive glances at in girlie magazines.

    That’s the aim, and from the things you have said here I don’t think you’d disagree much with it.

    As for the means of achieving it – I really have no axe to grind on that. If, as you suggest, an opt-in system could reach the same kind of percentage of families with children as an opt-out system, then that would be great. The less government intervention required, the better. I think, though, that for this to be the case, the system would have to be pushed really, really hard (i.e. ISPs writing to all account holders offering the service, a big advertising campaign etc.)

    Something I would agree with you on is that a non-government approach is best in an ideal world. Whatever the outcome of this consultation, I hope that the threat of government regulation will at least concentrate the minds of industry players and force them to actually take some belated responsibility for all this. Up to now, the industry has let parents down. It hasn’t adequately warned parents about what kind of stuff is available to their children, or provided them with sufficiently easy-to-use tools to control it. That has to change, and if the industry can be prompted by this debate to get its act together and help parents more, then I think this consultation could have a really positive outcome.

  • I agree with those who say it’s not a civil liberties issue. People can turn it off, and if the resulting system is anything like the one used by mobile operators – everyone will. T-Mobile/Orange doesn’t even allow access to YouTube! The filter is not going to survive pester power if it’s too strict. I think it’s pretty likely these proposals will just make consumer broadband more expensive whilst delivering no social benefits.

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Sep '12 - 3:40pm

    John: “T-Mobile/Orange doesn’t even allow access to YouTube!”

    YouTube encapsulates everything that’s rotten about the internet, from a parental perspective. My young daughter used to love going on Youtube to watch Bert & Ernie videos. Harmless enough, one might think. Then we noticed that many of the videos were accompanied by numerous obscene and profane comments. There are some lovely people out there. Youtube themselves offer no help to parents (I think they once planned to bring in some sort of parental control system but abandoned it). In the end I switched to Firefox and installed a nifty add-on that removes the comments altogether, but many parents would lack the nous to do that.

    The fundamental problem here – not just on the net, but increasingly out and about in real life – is that many people just aren’t interested in behaving appropriately around children any more.

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