Parents and businesses are being asked whether automatic online blocks should be introduced to protect children from adult and harmful websites, in a discussion paper published today by ministers.
It asks for views on the best way to shield children effectively from internet pornography and other adult and potentially harmful content - including websites promoting suicide, anorexia, gambling, self-harm and violence, as well as those exposing them to online sexual grooming or cyber-bullying.
And it asks which approaches are effective and technically practical; what improvements are already in development; and what more could be done to build on industry’s progress in the last year in better protecting young people and helping parents manage what their children access online.
It is published at a UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) conference today (28 June 2012) where over 150 organisations will discuss the central issues with Children’s Minister Tim Loughton and Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone.
The 10-week call for evidence will help to inform policy and future practical steps. Ministers will set out next steps later this year after discussions with UKCCIS - which brings together businesses, parents groups, children’s charities and academics.
The discussion paper asks for views on three broad options for the best approach in keeping children safest online, in a rapidly changing digital industry:
- A system, known as default-on or opt-in, where people’s home Internet Service Provider or each internet-enabled device (laptop and desktop computers; mobile phones; tablets and television) blocks harmful content automatically before any customer purchases it. They can later choose to adjust or remove the blocks if parents want to access the blocked websites.
- A system where customers are always presented with an unavoidable choice about whether or not they want filters and blocks installed either on their home internet service and/or each internet-enabled device they are buying - an approach known as “active choice”. This applies at either the ‘point of purchase’, either online, telephone or over the counter or when a customer first switches on a new device or internet subscription.
- A system that combines features of both systems, where customers are presented with a list of online content that will be blocked automatically unless they choose to unblock them - or active choice plus.
Today’s move comes after the prime minister said earlier this summer that there was a clear case to look at whether internet services or devices might come with a filter on as their default setting or having a combination of filter on and active choice.
Ministers think that such a system 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. No current filter, on its own, is 100 per cent effective in blocking age-inappropriate web content so ministers think the most robust way forward is combining parental controls with better education and information for families on what they can do to protect their children from harmful content.
It follows work over the last year led by government working with UKCCIS members to strengthen practical steps to improve child internet safety, following last year’s independent ‘Letting children be children’ report by Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of Mothers’ Union.
The Bailey report argued that parents are best placed to manage what their children’s access online - but while many want to take control, all too often they do not know how.
And it was clear that answer lay in businesses - manufacturers of internet-enabled devices; internet service providers; and public wifi providers - raising their game radically in helping families protect their children.
Progress to date includes:
- All four main internet service providers BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Sky signing up to the first ever code of practice last October, to give all new customers an active choice of whether or not to apply controls and filters to block harmful content - with the aim that eventually it would be extended to all existing customers as the norm, as TalkTalk has with its free HomeSafe service.
- Ongoing work with major laptop and hardware manufacturers to sell new products with active choice prompts at first switch-on. UKCCIS has also been working with mobile phone manufacturers and public wifi providers to block access to adult material in public places - for instance Virgin Media’s forthcoming service on the London Underground network and O2’s wifi links in McDonalds restaurants.
- Major high street retailers such as Tesco, John Lewis, Dixons and PC World piloting or introducing new schemes so staff ask all customers if they want parental controls activating, when they buy new products.
But ministers have always been clear that if industry did not go far enough or fast enough, the government would consider further action - including potentially regulation.
Children’s Minister Tim Loughton said:
The internet is transforming every aspect of society and family life - and opens up enormous opportunities for us all. But with the benefits come risks. Growing numbers of parents do not feel in control of what their families are exposed to online. Many want to take responsibility, but all too often they do not how know how because they find the technology too difficult to use or their children are more technically advanced then they are.
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.
UKCCIS is a role model of bringing together businesses, charities, universities, law enforcement and Government to work towards improving children’s internet safety and today’s consultation will help shape the future direction of travel on this.
Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone said:
The nature and complexity of the changes initiated by the internet and new technologies is a huge challenge to us as a society.
We should continue to encourage young people to use technology but it’s important that they are made aware of the dangers involved too. We all have a role to play.
In addition to the encouraging work of UKCCIS, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) has developed a specific educational resource to tackle this very issue through its Education Awareness and Skills workstream.
Notes to editors
The discussion paper is published today (28 June 2012).
Reg Bailey’s report ‘Letting children be children’ was published in June 2011 - with a progress ‘update’ published in October 2011.
The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) brings together over 180 organisations and individuals to work together to help to keep children and young people stay safe on the internet. It was launched by the prime minister on 29 September 2008 and is made up of companies, government departments and agencies (including the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), law enforcement, charities, parenting groups, academic experts and others. The council was a recommendation in Professor Tanya Byron’s report ‘Safer children in a digital world’ published in 2008 and updated in 2010:
Ofcom’s Children’s Media Literacy Tracker 2010 and EU Kids Online II survey finds:
- 12 per cent of 8- to 11-year-olds and 24 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds use social networking sites to communicate with people not known to them;
- 19 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds have seen potentially harmful user generated content, rising to 32 per cent of 14- to 16-year-old girls;
- 8 per cent of children aged 11 to 16 have experienced bullying on the internet;
- A third of 12- to 15-year-olds think all search engine information is truthful.
Customers are presented with an unavoidable choice or series of choices through which they consciously choose whether or not they want filters and blocks installed on their internet service or internet-enabled device. There are many ways that parental controls can be implemented. The scenarios below describe some options, and are not intended to be exhaustive.
ISP or network level parental controls
Blocking of adult or harmful websites is performed by the ISP, preventing these sites from reaching internet-enabled devices used in the home. When signing up to a new broadband contract the customer is asked at the point of sale (e.g. over the telephone), or as part of an online purchasing process, whether they would like parental controls activated. The customer may then be presented with a list of subject categories to decide which they want to block access to. This will mean all devices that connect to that internet access point are protected. Should a device in the house be connected to an alternative unfiltered internet connection, for example, when taking a laptop or games console to a friend’s house, the device will no longer be protected.
Device level, installed by purchaser
A parent could buy or download from the internet a parental control product (or in the case of mobile phones an app) to install on an existing laptop, desktop computer, mobile phone, television or other device. The parent is often required to have a little technical knowledge, but the products typically offer more functionality and are more effective at blocking harmful content accurately. Only the particular device that the software has been installed on will be protected, but that device will be protected regardless of where it connects to the internet (for example, at a friend’s house).
Device level, pre-installed by manufacturer or retailer
A parent could buy a device from a shop or online retailer with parental control software already installed on it but not yet activated. When the parent switches on the device for the first time, they are prompted on-screen to activate the parental controls as part of the initial set up of the device. In the case of mobile phones, this could mean a parental control software app is pre-installed, and when the phone is switched on the parent is asked to configure the types of internet content they want to allow access to. The parent needs less technical knowledge to install the software, but they may still need to choose the categories of harmful content that they wish to block. The device is then protected regardless of where it connects to the internet.
A variation of this could be that the shop staff could install the parental control software, acting on the customer’s wishes, as a value added service in the shop.
Parental controls on public wifi internet connections
Where the internet service is provided with filters already in place to block access to certain websites (e.g. legal pornography), and the customer has to tell their ISP they wish to opt-in to these sites if they want to access them. Also known as default-on.