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ISPs and Vaizey set to bump heads over default porn filter

Meeting to choose whether it's off or on

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A meeting on Monday between Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey and representatives of UK ISPs could be a game-changing moment for the way in which we are all allowed to use the internet. At stake is the seemingly academic question of whether PCs should arrive with adult filters turned off - the current default - or on.

Presently web users can go online and surf wherever they fancy, from flower-arranging to extreme dogging, with next to no distinction made between the two. The filters-on position would require individuals to take a conscious decision to access "adult" content.

Battle lines are drawn, and lobbyists from both sides of the internet control issue have been lobbying hard.

According to the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), they together with a number of ISPs have been invited to the meeting. Representatives of UKCCIS and children’s charities will also be present – but neither ISPA nor the Department for Culture were able to provide us with an agenda of what would be up for discussion.

This follows intense lobbying by organisations such as Safermedia, supported in Parliament by MPs like Claire Perry, the Conservative member for Devizes, who back in November last year proposed an opt-in age verification system before anyone could access internet porn.

ISPA’s view is that the most effective way to control children and young people’s access to content on the Internet is through parental control software. They told us that many ISPs are helping parents and carers by providing them with such tools.

This approach is rejected by Safermedia, which takes the line that an opt-in system, verifying that a user is over 18, is a simple common sense protection for children.

A spokeswoman told us: "This means that children and those not wishing to have pornography beamed unasked for into their homes and on their mobile phones are not being bombarded, while those adults who do, can opt in.

"At the moment, awareness of filtering technology is low and filters can be worked around, especially by IT-savvy children. Education is of limited value given children generally do not understand the dangers and parents can be too busy, or uninterested and sometimes not even literate.

"Neither can they police every device or their children's friends homes. Therefore it is not feasible or reasonable to rely on parental responsibility alone to protect children from the material the industry is producing.

"This initiative is an important way of helping parents and children without interfering with those who want porn."

Safermedia have been actively promoting this line by means of a viral campaign online and through its website.

From the other side of the fence, Jerry Barnett, MD of Strictly Broadband Ltd, and chairman of the Adult Industry Trade Association (AITA) is unconvinced. Describing the proposal as "unnecessary", he says: "There seems to be no strong demand in society for such action - it's simply to keep the Conservative heartland happy."

Such legislation would be fatal for the online UK porn industry, he explains. "While there may not be much sympathy for the industry, it does generate VAT and Corporation tax for the exchequer. Furthermore, and more fundamentally, UK businesses can be regulated by the UK government, while overseas businesses cannot.

"The end result would be that for people who DO enable the adult option on their connection, the porn available would be 100 per cent streamed from the US, Brazil, Europe, Japan and elsewhere - beyond UK control."

Lastly, he cites the potential embarrassment for those - particularly on shared connections - having to contact their ISP to lift a block: single women, or anyone who watches porn without the knowledge of their partner. He concludes: "Perhaps there's little sympathy in government for such people, but is it really Government's role to control the content they consume?"

The argument looks set to continue, but Monday may be a milestone in determining how PC control eventually pans out. ®

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