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Protecting our children from porn

It’s a huge moment in the fight against our children seeing porn online. Parent Zone CEO and executive board member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, Vicki Shotbolt, explains why

Remember 2012? The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (it rained), London Olympics (a triumph), and a government consultation on parental controls.

The question asked was whether we should a) have internet filtering by default, or b) whether customers should be able to choose the parental controls they thought were appropriate for their children, or c) whether a combination of these two approaches would be most sensible.

The responses were interesting, if not surprising. The majority of parents said that they felt they were responsible for their children’s online safety. They also said that they were most concerned about pornography, sexual messages and gambling. Concerns about grooming, suicide and religious and political extremism came much further down the list of parental worries. Which of course is not to say that parents weren’t worried about those things, rather they were not at the top of their worry list.

Our response to the consultation was that some things – pornography, in particular – should be filtered by default. Our reasoning was that this was the approach that was already working on the mobile network and it was the approach that would most easily protect children from seeing inappropriate content.
We didn’t think then, and don’t think now, that default filtering of pornography is the complete solution. Far from it.

It has always been the view of Parent Zone that the best way to ensure that children stay safe online is to build their digital resilience. Complete avoidance of risk is not the best way to do that. Nor are we fans of censorship. We occupy the liberal middle ground and believe wholeheartedly that the best people to make decisions about children’s capacity to process information are their parents.

‘It is vital that parents are having conversations with their children about pornography’

We support moves to ensure that children have the information they need about sex and relationships. In a digital age, we think it is vital that parents are having conversations with their children about pornography and that schools should be teaching pupils, including primary school children, about it in an age appropriate way.

However, we also believe that it makes sense to ask adults to ‘turn on’ porn rather than the other way around. Having porn included as part of your home broadband package isn’t particularly family friendly. Much better to make age restricted content something that adults can access by easily turning off a content filter than expect parents to remember to turn it on. It’s been working for years on the mobile network and it seemed to us to be a sensible way forward for broadband.

Not many other people agreed with us, least of all the ISPs. We ended up with an ‘active choice’ solution with different parental controls from different providers. Some turned on by default (Sky) and some not (everyone else). We got parental controls that included additional functionality, like time limits and filtering by functionality not just content. These controls allow parents to turn off social networking, for example, or gaming if they prefer to limit their children’s use of those sites and services.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach, save for one thing. It’s much more likely that a child would want to figure out how to get around parental controls if they were blocking all access to the internet – or stopping them gaming, say – than if there was simply an 18 age rating filter that meant they couldn’t easily or accidentally come across porn.
Muddling up filters with parental controls seemed to us to be exactly that. A muddle.

As for making an active choice about using the controls, not many parents did, despite the ISPs investing millions in Internet Matters, a website providing information to parents about online safety in general, and parental controls in particular.

‘We hate to say we told you so – but we did’

According to the latest Ofcom research, only around a third of parents are using parental controls, and there is a growing number of parents who have said they have stopped using them.
And so the debate about children seeing pornography has continued to rage. Not surprising, given the worrying statistics. Research commissioned by the NSPCC and the children’s commissioner for England this year found that 53% of 11 to 16-year-olds have encountered pornography online. We hate to say we told you so – but we did.

The active choice approach hasn’t and won’t stop hard core porn being freely available to children. Which is where the new Digital Economy Bill comes in. The conservative manifesto promised action on this issue and they have made good on the promise. As a result of this bill, porn sites will be required to adopt age verification processes and to make sure they do, we will have an age verification regulator. What’s more, if sites don’t comply, a last minute amendment will require ISPs to block the site.

Sadly, the genie is probably too far out of the bottle to really deal with this issue. As any user of Snapchat will know, it is insanely easy to add a porn site to stories and whilst those porn sites might well now have age verification in place, that won’t stop ‘amateur’ content being shared via peer to peer services.

For the want of filtering pornography at the network level, we have ended up with an elaborate age verification infrastructure. But no matter. At last we have reached a position that will help to limit the over supply of hard core porn to children and as one of the only organisations who said this was needed in 2012, we at Parent Zone are doing a little happy dance.