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Ministers consult public on 'opt in for smut' plans

Just tick here, sir, in the 'I am a pervert' box

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Imagine a future where you are demanded to declare to your ISP that you wish to view pornography online?

If ministers get their way, broadband customers could soon be required to opt-in to being, er, serviced by X-rated content on the internet.

A 10-week public consultation document on parental controls was released by the Department for Education this morning. It offers three scenarios to better "protect" children browsing the web.

The political debate about such sexually explicit material as well as other apparent harmful sites, such as ones that advocate suicide or drug use, has been couched in the "think of the children" line and it has firm backing from the Prime Minister David Cameron, who is pushing for stringent self-policing from telcos.

If they fail to come up with a good enough solution, then government regulation will follow, the PM has warned.

Today's consultation document reads:

The Prime Minister spoke recently about the possibility that internet services or devices might come with a filter on as their default setting, and said that the government should investigate that option and seek views on it.

He was clear that this could only work if there was a clear prompt for the user, telling them about the settings and giving them a chance to change them.

We want this questionnaire to give business, and children's and parents' organisations, the opportunity to make clear to government what their views and concerns are and how they see their responsibilities. We want to seek views on how parents and children can become better educated about how to minimise risks when online, but also to hear about the potential for technical solutions, and what can be done to address problems such as cyber-bullying.

Google, which undoubtedly makes plenty of cash from porn sites, has previously warned against such a heavy-handed approach to filtering content over ISP networks in the UK.

But others, including telco TalkTalk which already has its own web-filtering tool, believe that an "opt-in" blocking service should come down to "parental control".

Cameron is a fan of TalkTalk's system that gives parents the ability to censor the type of content their children can view online.

In April, recommendations laid out in an independent Parliamentary inquiry into online child safety [PDF] was lambasted by the telco industry, with ISPs labelling the proposals unworkable.

Chair of the inquiry – Tory MP Claire Perry – claimed at the time that many kids in the UK were "accessing internet pornography" as well as other "inappropriate" material such as websites that promote self-harm and anorexia.

She argued that a "worrying" pattern had emerged.

But broadband industry lobby group ISPA dismissed the inquiry's proposals, which included one recommendation that "ISPs should be tasked with rolling out single account network filters for domestic broadband customers that can provide one-click filtering for all devices connected to a home internet connection within 12 months".

"Active choice" is one of the options to be considered by members of the public who submit their views on the consultation. Under that option, ISP punters would be able to opt-in to having their broadband access ridden of dodgy websites. But that proposal – according to ministers – is only lethargically supported by the country's biggest telcos.

Besides from TalkTalk, the other big name ISPs including Virgin Media and BT already offer software to their customers that can be installed locally to block material that individuals may deem inappropriate or offensive.

Collectively, the industry is putting forward a code of conduct that will promote the "active choice" option to broadband customers from October this year, but TalkTalk is the only major telco serving up website blocking at a network level. All the others offer much softer measures for parental control.

The ISPA's Secretary General Nicholas Lansman said that the broadband market supported active choice and added that he hoped the public debate would help refocus the discussion to finding "the most effective way to control access to inappropriate material rather than about default blocking of pornography."

He added: "ISPs are committed to making the internet a safer place and offer their customers a number of different ways to protect themselves online, be it on a router, device or network level, or through education and awareness."

The inquiry dissed that proposal in April:

While Active Choice is a step in the right direction, the implementation plans are lacklustre at best. Not all ISPs are planning to provide a filter that will protect all internet-enabled devices connected to a single account and there seems to be little commitment to rolling the product out to the entire customer base. Unless a more energetic approach is taken, Active Choice will do little to address the underlying problem of inadequate filtering.

Ministers are pushing for more robust measures, however. If regulation is introduced by the government then ISPs could be forced to automatically block adult websites preventing any choice whatsoever from the customer upon subscribing to the service.

Another option on the table is to switch net-filtering on by default – meaning that customers would have to tick a box to declare they want to run wild and free on the internet.

Such an idea was knocked back by Lansman, who said: "We agree with the Children's Minister Tim Loughton that default filtering lessens parental mediation and should not be viewed as a silver bullet."

The consultation also flagged concerns about flushing out the many fans of porn via such a mechanism.

It said: "Concerns have been raised that ISPs will hold a list of households that have decided that they want access to adult or harmful content as a result of these decisions. This system already works in the mobile phone sector without raising such concerns from customers."

The consultation document fails to nail exactly what material should be considered inappropriate. Indeed, it's very difficult to police perceptions of taste and decency on the internet and filtering the system will inevitably prove, at best, inconsistent. ®

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