The Prime Minister’s announcement on 11 Oct 2011 – that the four main broadband providers (BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin) will give parents (in fact, all subscribers) a so-called “active choice” on first subscription to allow or block internet pornography in their homes – generated some controversy. Is this really what parents want? Can it really prevent the internet bringing children often inadvertent access to anything from mild to extreme pornography in a few simple clicks? Does it portend a more sinister move towards censorship?
The evidence base underpinning The Bailey Review which, in turn, led to this announcement, shows that if you ask parents about the internet they are indeed concerned (though, if you ask them more generally what worries them about their child, they put many other issues first – education, road safety, getting a job, health…). So, parents, indeed, all internet users, said Bailey, should be faced with an active choice to accept or prevent their household’s access to pornography (and other potentially inappropriate or unwanted content) – and Cameron agreed.
As I noted in commenting on that review , it seems right that companies providing a service to children (and nearly every child in this country is now online) should address – or at least recognise – the needs of children. Most media providers have long had to do just this, often at some cost to their business interests. Pornographic content in television, films, computer games and magazines has long been regulated so as to be age-appropriate for children. Interestingly, although periodic anxieties about censorship have arisen, for the most part there is widespread public support for content regulation in the interests of child protection (while adults – and a few children – who wish to find pornography have presumably continued to do so relatively unimpeded). Why, then, is such regulation more controversial for the internet?
On the one hand, because there is good reason to suppose the policy will not work: filters work better nowadays than they did but still not well enough; parents struggle to acquire, install and operate them, especially if different settings and passwords are needed for different family members; decisions made once (on purchase) may not be updated when circumstances change; not all parents, regrettably, may make a decision in the best interests of their child. On the other hand, although as parents, many people are indeed keen to filter their children’s internet access, as citizens it seems that we distrust both government and industry to deliver a transparent, effective and trustworthy service that doesn’t smuggle in censorship, surveillance or commercially-profitable data collection on the quiet. Public trust will rest heavily on industry honouring its promise that the policy’s effectiveness will be independently reviewed.
Still, we should remember that this policy is already a compromise between two warring sides – those who call for central blocking of pornography before it reaches ordinary households and those who see any restrictions as an illegitimate infringement of our information freedoms. Moreover, it is hard to argue against the notion of active choice, notwithstanding the many misunderstandings already resulting. So let’s wait and see – What choices will be made? Will parents “have their say” on the new government portal for complaints, Parentport, and how will regulators respond? Will parental satisfaction with being given a choice be outweighed by the dissatisfaction of those who are not parents? What will the result of the industry’s independent review reveal? One benefit could be a wider public understanding of and readiness to participate in regulatory processes. What remains less clear is whether there will also be a benfit in terms of the significant reduction in harm to children.