Why Internet Service Providers are putting profits before children’s welfare

There’s been a steady trickle of news on the subject of children’s access to pornography on the internet ever since the Report from the Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection was published last month.

This parliamentary report headed up by Claire Perry MP stems from the independent review entitled ‘Letting Children be Children’ looking at the pressures on children to grow up too quickly carried out by Reg Bailey, the Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union, in June 2011.  His report produced a number of recommendations including making every internet service provider (ISP) customer make a decision at the point of purchase over whether they want adult content on their home internet, laptops or smart phones, rather than receiving it automatically.

Given that Reg Bailey’s review received David Cameron’s backing, you would be forgiven for  thinking that progress towards improving online protection for children would be welcomed.  As the parliamentary report puts it:

Since the early days of the World Wide Web, pornography has been one of the most widely available forms of internet content. Freedom from prying eyes, human imagination and zero barriers to entry have led to an explosion of pornographic creativity with every possible sexual act represented online including many that are deeply degrading, disturbing and violent. It is said that the whole history of human sexual perversion is only a few clicks away.  Unfortunately, our children, with their natural curiosity and superior technological skills, are finding and viewing these images.

Many feel that device-level filters are no longer offering sufficient protection for children online. Only a minority of parents use these filters and this number is falling. An explosion in the number of internet-enabled devices makes the process of individual device protection even more arduous. Children spend increasing amounts of time online, are often more “tech savvy” and knowledgeable than their parents and know how to circumvent or avoid device filters. The result is that children are stumbling across or seeking out pornographic material and that this ready exposure to porn, especially the violent degrading material so easily available via an unfiltered internet connection, is having disturbing consequences. The current situation is of great concern to parents and those working with children and young people and things will only deteriorate as technological convergence means that freely available pornography from the internet will be nestling alongside regulated and rated content offerings from broadcasters on the family internet-enabled television.

I’m not expecting any of this to be news to most people.  Those of us with children will know that installing and using internet filters is not always straightforward, which might go some way to explaining why the proportion of parents who have reported installing internet controls  has fallen 10%  from 49% in 2008 to 39% in 2011.  When we recently changed our internet service provider, the internet control software we were given crashed our computer and we had to remove it.   We were able to find an alternative, but it proves the point.

The recommendation of the parliamentary report that ISPs provide an ‘opt-in’ system that requires customers to actively choose to receive adult content has received plenty of backing with a YouGov poll finding almost six out of ten people saying they would use this sort of service.  The Daily Mail and the Labour Party have also supported it.

However, as is often tthe case, there have been some strong voices against such a move including that of Google.  In don’t buy their argument that it is parents who should take sole responsibility for their children’s online activity.  Parents should take responsibility, although many don’t bother or choose not to.  Those who do want to often need support and education and the ISPs are the obvious people to turn to.

The thing is that it doesn’t need to be complicated.  Almost all large British mobile phone companies (some of whom also supply fixed line internet broadband services) offer a service where mobile internet access is subject to a default adult content bar which can only be lifted by proving that the end user is over 18.  Providing the same system for home use is not a big step forward.

No ISP has so far shown any interest in providing an ‘opt-in’ system.  The Government has declared that it prefers an ‘opt-out’ system although it maintains all options are still on the table.  Of all the ISPs, only TalkTalk has made the effort to create an ‘opt-out’ system.  Its HomeSafe filter which has reportedly cost £20m to create offers protection for every computer and device accessing the internet via the family broadband connection.  Whilst it has been available to TalkTalk customers since March the company is now planning to force all customers to decide whether they want to bypass the filter.  This is a brave and promising move on their part.

Premier and Safermedia reported yesterday that their Safety Net campaign that has attracted over 80,000 signatures has influenced TalkTalk’s decision to make this change.  If this is indeed the case then they are to be congratulated.

Claire Perry has said that TalkTalk’s move is a “massive step forward” and should put added pressure on other companies such as BT, Virgin Media and Sky adding that, “They are coming kicking and screaming.”

I suppose the big question in all of this is why are the ISPs so reluctant to change their policies and go with a system that protects children and gives families peace of mind?  One answer could be cost, but TalkTalk have not used that as an excuse for setting up their HomeSafe filter.  A ComRes poll found that 57% of Christians would be willing to pay more for an opt-in service, which indicates that costs should not be a major hurdle.

There is still a debate that the Government wants to have on whether ‘opt-in’ or ‘opt-out’ is better, ubt either of these is vastly better than what we have at the moment.  The ISPs can’t use the excuse that they need to wait for a decision on high before they begin to put plans in place.  Again TalkTalk have proved this is not a hurdle.

I think perhaps the main reason why BT, Virgin and Sky along with most others SPs are dragging their heels on this is not in fact to do with the protection of children.  They have already shown that they are happy to abdicate this responsibility to parents.  I suspect that it is to do with what will take place in homes when parents have to decide whether to allow adult material into the home.  Of those people surveyed who favoured an ‘opt-in’ system, women were much more in favour, with 77% saying they would use such a service, compared to only 37% of men.  With a recognition of the high numbers of men who view pornography, there are likely to be plenty of awkward conversations and even more annoyed customers who are made to make this decision aginst their will.

Maybe then in our desire to protect our children, there could be some other consequences that will protect families even further.  Whatever the case, the ISPs are showing a inexcusable disregard for the best interests of our society.  The Government will undoubtedly be under a vast amount of pressure  from the ISPs to reach a decision that they will be happy with, which is why it is vitally important that our ministers don’t crumble under pressure and fudge the issue when the review moves to the consultation phase later this year.

This is the best opportunity we have had to address our children’s needs when they go online.  Once again we need to pray that our Government doesn’t blow it.

Categories: Children & families, Government, Sex & pornography

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