As part of the seemingly endless round of consultations (I'm not complaining – this is how it should be done), the UK government is asking about parental internet controls:
Tim Loughton, Minister for Children and Families, and Lynne Featherstone, Minister for Equalities and Criminal Information are joint chairs of the executive board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS). They are writing to members of UKCCIS to seek their views and advice on parental controls. The request is to members of UKCCIS and other organisations and individuals, especially parents, who might want to respond.
Now, of course, no one should be against the idea of protecting children from unsuitable content when they use the Internet; similarly, it is entirely appropriate to help parents and guardians to do that. But there is a world of difference between the opt-out and opt-in approaches, say, and between device-level and system-level blocking.
Opt-out would allow anyone to opt out of receiving certain kinds of content by adding certain filters, while opt in would apply those filters as the default, and require people to opt in to receive certain classes of content.
The filters could be applied either across the entire network, or on a device-by-device basis. Clearly, network-wide, opt-in approaches are the most illiberal, since they impose a minimalist set on everyone, while device-based opt-out systems are the most liberal, since they presuppose an (almost) unfiltered network, and let everyone narrow things down using their own approach.
Now many people might assume that the opt-in approach is actually perfectly reasonable, since it's about protecting children, which everyone agrees is a good thing. But that ignores several key issues. The first is that such default censorship – for that is what this is, however well intentioned – is always imperfect. It requires lists of permissible and impermissible material to be drawn up, and inevitably mistakes are made. Nor are such mistakes limited to edge cases, as the recent experience of Coadec shows.
Here's some background to the organisation:
The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec) works to support legislation and other government policies that foster a vibrant, innovative and sustainable digital economy for Britain.
We are a non-profit organisation made up of a wide range of members of the UK innovation community, including entrepreneurs, leaders of tech-driven startups and SMEs, inventors and developers, writers and journalists, and many others who believe that the future of Britain lies in the success of its digital economy.
And here's what happened:
These filters [on mobile phones] are applied to "adult material" and in order to have a block removed from your phone you must contact the mobile provider and provide credit card details as proof you are over 18 in order for it to be removed. But these blocks are not the silver bullet their proponents claim they are. Just as when you search for terms on a search engine, some results are included that are not what you were looking for, so filters blocking content are not always accurate. Mistakes will occur and sites which do not contain adult content will inadvertently be blocked and they currently have no way of finding out other than serendipitously.
Our site does not contain any adult content, does not host a forum, and any comments made on blog posts are moderated and must obtain approval before being posted on our site. So it was disturbing to hear from one of our supporters that our website had been blocked on their phone as only being suitable for people over the age of 18.
In other words, the block had clearly been applied inappropriately. Many telephone calls and tweets later, Coadec was still blocked, and it was only by using personal contacts that Coadec finally sorted out the problem.
So this raises an interesting question. Supposing your company gets blocked by error under a future parental control scheme that imposes network-wide censorship: could you pull the necessary strings behind the scenes, or would you just have to sit and wait for the system eventually to put you back on the Internet (assuming it ever did)? More to the point, could your business survive such online invisibility for any extended period of time?
If it can't, you might want to respond to this consultation, even if at first sight it doesn't have much to do with business. In fact, it does, because one of the options here – one being pushed very hard in certain quarters – is full-scale, Net-wide censorship. And if that is put in place, mistakes will inevitably be made – not least because the self-appointed censors will probably err on the side of caution when drawing up their lists. That might lead to totally innocent companies being rendered unreachable by Internet users who do not opt in to the restricted stuff.
That is why I believe it is far better for filtering to take place on a device-by-device basis. It means that there is no risk of companies finding themselves cut off from their customers. Device-level filtering is better for another reason. Since the aim is for children to be protected, it makes sense to protect them on the devices they use. If they take their laptop or mobile to a friend's house, the content they can access through wifi connections is decided by their parents, not those of the friend.
Applying a network-wide censorship scheme is pernicious for another reason. As well as making it easy for lax parents to abdicate their responsibility to supervise what their children view – and to teach them what is safe and how to avoid what is unsafe – it will also lull even the most responsible parents into a false sense of security. They may think: "since the bad stuff is blocked, I don't need to worry so much about what my children are up to online." That, clearly, is unwise, since there are numerous ways to circumvent such filters, and there are also sites that may not be blocked that are nonetheless dangerous unless children are taught by their parents how to use them safely.
You can make your views known on this important area using the submission form on the consultation's home page. This is only available as a Microsoft Word document: it is sadly ironic that the Department of Education is ignorant about the idea of open formats. The closing date for submissions is 6 September.