European Union proposal could derail UK voluntary online child protection

by John Carr

John Carr, OBE, is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government’s principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people.

JCNewPictureColourSince 2005 Great Britain’s mobile phone networks have been applying filters to try to ensure that, at least through their networks, a range of adult content (including but not limited to pornography) is not accessible to minors. These filters apply by default, i.e. from the moment an account is first created. For these purposes you get an account when you get a phone number. To get the “adult bar” lifted you only have to prove you are at least 18. This is not difficult or time consuming. It can be done online, over the phone or, if you prefer, you can go into one of the mobile phone company’s many shops. The highly respected and independent British Board of Film Classification underwrites the scheme that determines what gets categorized as “adult content.”

But this could be at risk if a European Union proposal takes hold.

Earlier this year one of our largest ISPs began to follow a very similar policy in relation to its domestic customers. Here the account holder, typically the head of household (who would also have been verified as being over 18 when commencing the contract), is required to decide whether they want the filters to stay in place or be removed. The filters work at network level and so govern every device that connects to the internet through the family’s router.

Last year a national “Friendly WiFi” scheme was inaugurated.  If the WiFi service is being provided in a public space where one could reasonably expect sub-18s to be found all the signed up companies block access to pornography and some of them also restrict other adult content. The difference here, though, is that nobody has an option to ask for the restrictions to be removed.

Finally, every mobile phone network, ISP and WiFi provider also blocks access to web addresses known to contain child pornography. The addresses are provided by the Internet Watch Foundation. Obviously, since this is anyway illegal content, there is no question of anyone being allowed to ask for the block to be taken down.

British filtering in jeopordy

Now here’s the catch. Everything I have set out above is done on a voluntary basis. There is no law requiring any of it but, obviously, our law allows it. Government, law enforcement and those concerned with child welfare all support the status quo and have applauded the industry for their willingness to establish the framework we have. There has never been a legal challenge to any of the arrangements outlined and that’s at least in part due to the fact that any such action would be doomed because its lawfulness is beyond peradventure.

But it all now stands at risk. In the name of “net neutrality” — the European Union is on the threshold of outlawing the whole kit and caboodle. They are planning to insist (a) that no one can block access to child pornography unless their local (national) law expressly mandates it  ( as noted in the UK it doesn’t)and (b) that service providers must first obtain the “explicit prior consent”  of the end user before they can restrict access to any kind of legal content.

Now no one I know in the UK has ever argued that filters are a perfect or complete answer to keeping kids away from age inappropriate content – a gigantic effort goes into reaching out to parents, to help them help their kids and in schools online etiquette and safety is built in to the curriculum.

Not about censorship

But parents have said that they think filters can be a useful part of their armory but too many found them excessively complex to implement properly so they asked for greater simplicity in the way they could be turned on. What could be simpler than default on and the entire package is surrounded by tons of information about what filters can and cannot reliably do. Thus default on does not mean anything is being slipped by anyone.

Parents should not have to jump through hoops to make the internet safer for their kids. It should be as safe as it can be at the get-go. Sure, parents can liberalise or remove the filters altogether if they want (except in the case of WiFi). But now when substantial numbers of 3 year olds ( and younger) kids have internet enabled tablets any notion that a typical parent can closely supervise or support their child’s online experiences is utterly bogus. Parents need all the help they can get, as do the kids, particularly very young ones.

This is not about censorship. No legal content that is currently on the internet will cease to be there or will be changed. This is about trying to replicate in the online space the sorts of access controls we have all taken for granted for many years in the physical world. And I the EU wants to tell us we can’t do that any more there will be as heavy political priced to be paid.

John Carr, OBE,  is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government’s principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International.  (John’s full bio)