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Contact, not content, is the bigger problem

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Porn and mobile chat rooms are forecast as big money spinners for mobile phone operators. Faster download speeds and colour handsets are driving the market forward.

But concerns about child safety have prompted mobile operators into action to prevent 'adult content' getting onto the wrong handsets.

In London this week, two mobile operators joined in a debate of the joint code of practice issued by the industry in January, to prevent youngsters from accessing porn, gaming and other unsuitable content on their mobile phones. Other participants in the well-attended debate included adult content outfits, aggregators and child protection lobbyists. It was lively affair.

Under the code of practice, people must prove their age before they gain access to 18-rated content. Chat rooms available to under 18s will also be moderated to prevent misuse by paedophiles. Parents can add filters to phones blocking access to sites deemed unsuitable.

Mobile chat worries

The key areas of concern that emerged during the debate were contact and chat, rather than under-age access to porn. Users stumbling upon inappropriate sites might be put off, but text environments can draw in youngsters. Members of the audience said operators should draw a line between chat rooms and adult dating services.

Mobile environment needs safety by design

Ruth Dixon, advisory services manager at Child Net, said the mobile industry has a chance to learn from the experience and mistakes made by fixed-line ISPs. And she welcomed the mobile operators' code of practice, while expressing concern about mobile location services, which could increase child protection risks.

ISPs are not currently liable for the content their users download but Dixon noted that "legal liability and public expectation are two different things. In the mobile area, safety is expected as standard".

People assume that they will pay for content for their mobile phones - unlike the Internet. This should make mobile content easier to police.

John Maynard, MMS programme manager at Vodafone UK, commented that "operators have a liability for content that is monetised - we have become shopkeepers rather than just a payment agency or common carrier. People are less likely to distribute illegal content because the billing mechanism will catch up with them."

Hardcore in Germany, Page 3 in UK

Vodafone is introducing age verification (for porn, gambling and chat) and content filtering for WAP content from May.

This is not censorship but sensible self-regulation, Maynard said. However, an audience member pointed out that Vodafone users in Germany would have access to far "harder" content than those in the UK.

Maynard countered that the company is simply reflecting the standards and classification of content expected in different countries. Jonny Shipp, head of content control at O2, supported this argument. "Community standards differ," he said.

Operators - not aggregators - are taking control of filtering. This filtering will be tied in with an age verification database. Vodafone won't expose this age verification database to partners because of the difficulty of getting consent from punters.

"It's unrealistic to think people will say 'I'm an adult content user - please share my information with other people," Maynard said.

Vodafone - like 02 - will provide adult services, chat and gambling through third parties, rather than its own brand. Both operators said they would take tough action against aggregators who violate the code of practice. ®

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