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Cameron calls for ISP-level parental censorship tools

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Prime Minister David Cameron has warned ISPs to be more robust with their plans to provide better tools to help parents censor sexualised content online, or else the government could step in with its own regulation measures.

"The social response is not something we can leave to chance. We need to make sure we hold businesses and regulators to account in a transparent way," said Cameron.

His comments came as the Department for Education published a report today carried out by Mothers' Union CEO Reg Bailey, who issued a raft of recommendations urging British businesses to cut down on the amount of marketing aimed at children through various media outlets including the internet.

Bailey called on ISPs to develop better controls to help parents be more selective about what their children can and can't see online.

Here's the full text (available via the DfE website) on the internet measures Bailey recommended in his report:

To provide a consistent level of protection across all media, as a matter of urgency, the internet industry should ensure that customers must make an active choice over what sort of content they want to allow their children to access.

To facilitate this, the internet industry must act decisively to develop and introduce effective parental controls, with government regulation if voluntary action is not forthcoming within a reasonable timescale. In addition, those providing content which is age-restricted, whether by law or company policy, should seek robust means of age verification as well as making it easy for parents to block underage access.

ACTION: Internet industry and providers of age-restricted content, through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS)

Last month, telco TalkTalk became the first major UK ISP to implement network-level anti-malware blockers on its service.

The system arrived later than originally planned, after the company quietly begun following its customers around the web and scanning what they looked in the summer of 2010 as part of TalkTalk's development of its anti-malware system dubbed "HomeSafe".

It had expected to launch the system late last year, but in July 2010 Information Commissioner Christopher Graham chided TalkTalk for following its 4.2 million customers around the web without telling them.

TalkTalk later provided the commissioner with documents to support its public claims that the technology and the trials complied with privacy laws, paving the way for the system to be released last month.

Bailey's recommendation points to ISP customers needing to make an "active choice" over what content they want their children to see online. In other words, they get the final say on what is filtered out.

To provide that option, Bailey is calling on the internet industry to offer either a network-level filtering system, such as the one TalkTalk just introduced, or else via "pre-installed software on a new laptop".

"We believe that this will substantially increase the take-up and awareness of these tools and, consequently, reduce the amount of online adult material accessed by children," reads the report.

Current online age verification methods are also pooh-poohed in the review.

"The fact that we do not have a national identity system in the UK is sometimes offered as a reason why age verification cannot be improved," it said.

"However, we note that age verification has to be in place in non-internet environments by law (for example, the sale of pornography on DVD) and if we as a society are saying that the supply of adult material needs control, then that control should operate across all outlets, irrespective of the ease of checking the buyer’s age."

As we've reported previously, this could soon change given that the Cabinet Office has already issued a pre-tender notice to encourage what it described as submissions from "trusted private sector identity service providers" on developing the concept of so-called "ID Assurance".

Some might argue that such a move could be the Cabinet Office's backdoor way in to creating its very own ID database, an idea which previously foundered along with the National ID Card scheme.

Perhaps learning from the mistakes of the past, the Cabinet Office is keen to consult privacy activists and make noises about saving billions of pounds in the public purse by making services "digital by default". Whether such a scheme will eventually resemble the ID cards system, sans the cards, remains to be seen, however. ®

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