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UK.gov's web filth block plan: Last chance to speak your brains

Now if you could just fill in this Word doc about your pr0n habit...

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Analysis A 10-week public consultation on blocking online pornography to "protect" children browsing the web ends today. And unsurprisingly many of those for and against such a plan have been lobbying hard as the deadline for opinions on the matter closes.

The government wants UK internet service providers to install filters that, by default, block access to porn online. Adults would have to contact their ISPs to "opt-in" to restore access to their favourite smut sites, if the ruling coalition gets its way.

The Register was first to reveal - within hours of the Department for Education publishing its parental internet controls proposal - that the DfE's website was ironically exposing the email addresses, unencrypted passwords and sensitive answers submitted people who filled in the consultation's questionnaire.

At great embarrassment, the department - which is headed up by Tory MP Michael Gove - was forced to take its survey offline and eventually, after some haranguing from your correspondent, turned itself in to the Information Commissioner's Office to disclose the data protection blunder.

Since then, anyone interested in sharing their private views about the net filtering of online grumble flicks was told to do so via a form created in Microsoft's Word that needed to be filled in offline and uploaded, as though we were all back in 1998 again.

Lobbyists on both sides of the debate complained about the inability to fill in the consultation doc in a cloudy, Web2.0 manner, moaning that the system was fiddly and poorly conceived.

Little did they know that the DfE had no choice but to yank the entire process offline while it investigated the security cockup. Indeed, a message on the department's consultation section of its website currently reads:

Due to technical problems we have had to temporarily take the e-consultations tool offline. However, you can still access details of all the Department’s live consultations, as well as download and submit response forms, from this section.

Meanwhile, the ICO is continuing to investigate the privacy flaw in the DfE's website with a probe that is taking months rather than weeks to complete.

Some have perhaps rightly complained that, given the inelegance of the current consultation system, it might have been appropriate for Gove's team to extend the deadline on public views sought on the issue of filtering pornography on the internet.

However, the DfE has stuck to the 10 weeks it originally set for interested players - be they porn lovers or Mary Whitehouse types - to submit their opinions.

And, as of yesterday, children's minister Tim Loughton, who joint-chairs the executive board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UCCIS), was sacked by Prime Minister David Cameron in a surprise move.

Loughton had been helping to steer the consultation and lobbying process on net filtering through Whitehall - so his banishment from the Cabinet leaves that work somewhat flapping in the wind.

He had this to say in June:

We have been clear that the internet industry needs to raise its game to equip families better in being able to block what their children access on the internet. There has been some good progress to date but just as technology does not stand still, nor should we, in making sure our children are protected. We have always been clear we would turn up the heat on industry if it did not make fast enough progress.

There is no silver bullet to solve this. No filter can ever be 100 per cent foolproof. There is a cottage industry of people, mostly operating outside the UK, continually creating and proliferating proxy websites that provide links to adult and harmful content.

Automatic filtering on its own risks lulling parents into a false sense of security and there can never be any substitute for parents taking responsibility for how, when and where their children use the internet. The answer lies in finding ways to combine technical solutions with better education, information and, if necessary regulation further down the line.

Cameron has been clear that the the government could step in with its own regulation measures if the telco industry fails to better police sexualised content online.

"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," he said in June 2011.

Now that the public consultation is drawing to a close, budget ISP TalkTalk has been quick to get a final bit of lobbying thrown in.

The telco has long favoured giving its punters what the company describes as an "active choice" for blocking porn on the web.

It was the first - and remains the only - major ISP to implement network-level anti-malware blockers on its service with the launch of its Homesafe system, which garnered some controversy in the summer of 2010 for quietly following its customers around the web and scanning what they looked at without telling them they were effectively being stalked by the firm.

After a gentle ticking off from the ICO, TalkTalk - having demonstrated that its trials had complied with privacy laws - was eventually able to release HomeSafe in May last year.

Fast forward to today, and here's what TalkTalk's chief Dido Harding had to say this morning: "We firmly believe that internet safety is the road safety of our children’s generation. Road safety required all of us to play our part; teaching the Green Cross Code, using seat belts, fitting car seats and so on."

More widely, however, telcos unsurprisingly disagree with filtering pornography and other material labelled by some as inappropriate for prying young eyes. They instead favour an "active choice" that doesn't involve network-level blocking of such content.

The industry has bandied together a code of conduct on promoting "active choice" to its customers, but ultimately ISPs are offering much softer measures for parental control than the one put forward by TalkTalk - which counts Cameron as a fan. ®

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