Online porn debate hots up

Posted: April 30, 2012

That children should be protected from inappropriate material on the Internet is not in question, but just how and who the responsibility lies with has been debated in recent days.

A cross-party group of MPs, lead by Conservative Claire Perry, have been calling for an ‘opt in’ system, with ISPs assuming their customers didn’t wish to access adult sites (although it’s unclear who would be deciding if a site had adult content on it or not) unless told otherwise.

The group of MPs deny this would be civil liberties issue, with Tory MP Claire Perry saying, “It is totally perverse that the same companies who support an opt-in system for their mobile Internet customers are opposed to one for customers accessing the Internet via their fixed internet connections. We need much more common sense in this critical area.”

In a recent report, only 30 per cent of parents of porn-watching children knew they had accessed adult material, fuelling calls for an opt-in system. The large study is said to demonstrate most parents have no idea what their children are looking at on the Internet. This is backed up by details such as among parents of children who had admitted to researchers that they had looked at adult content, over two thirds were certain their child had not, or said they did not know. Additionally, over a quarter of children admitted ignoring warnings their parents gave them about viewing ‘harmful material’ on the Internet.

A counter-argument – that web users should be asked if they wish to ‘opt-out’ of Adult Content – is also receiving growing support, mostly because it gives the same level of control to concerned parents without requiring a ‘database of porn lovers’ to be created and shared. Under this proposal, ISPs would be required to block sites on their blacklist, but only after being asked to do so by their bill-paying adult customers. Again, it’s unclear how the filter would be applied and what would be included, and what would not. A situation not unlike Apple blocking a swimwear shop app from their App Store (a decision later over-turned) is feared by some.

The group of MPs who launched the campaign for an opt-in system state that increasing numbers of teenagers are growing-up addicted to porn and that existing filters aren’t adequate to protect children, who are often far more tech-savvy than their parents and are able to bypass simple parental locks and controls.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s proposal, that the four major ISPs should offer new customers the chance to opt out of access to pornography, has been criticised by the opt-in camp. They argue it would be 2017 before the proportion of households included by Mr Hunt’s system reached 90 per cent.

The argument follows comments coming from Google last week, saying they were a search engine, not an Internet Censorship Service, and that parents should take responsibility for what their children view online.

The Daily Mail has launched a Block Online Porn campaign and Labour MP Helen Goodman, shadow minister for the media, has commented that the fact that phone companies do have filtering systems was proof that ISPs could also act. She said, “Mobile phone companies can do this, so clearly the technology exists. What we want to see is ISPs introducing something similar within the year. I believe they are not taking action because, sadly, ISPs make money out of the high volume of traffic to porn websites. Their profit motive is taking priority over the interests of our children.”

Opponents of either an opt-in or opt-out system point out it’s relatively simple to encrypt any data online – including pictures and video – to side-step any filtering. They add default filters might block political blogs or anti-censorship sites. An example was given, suggesting the BBC wouldn’t be filtered for using the word ‘sex’ three times on a page, but a blog or other site may be blocked for using the word in the same responsible context. It follows any ‘dumb’ default filter would need to be pretty weak to avoid blocking every other misery-lit title on Amazon and if it was more aggressive, adults would tend to turn it off anyway, frustrated by a heavy-hand approach.

It’s also been argued that the problem with any ‘nanny state’ approach is it may help parents feel safer, and therefore become less vigilant, while the most vulnerable children are still being approached on Facebook by unsavoury types or looking at pro self-harm, anorexia or suicide sites.

Leave a Reply