Yesterday, Claire Perry MP wrote an article for the Telegraph on her campaign to protect children online. Since late last year, Ms. Perry has advocated more online protection for children under the age of 18 who may just be accessing and looking at porn. Ms. Perry wrote in her article yesterday:
“Increasingly, children use the internet to look at porn. Almost a quarter of teenagers say that they view sexual images online, while one in three 10-year-olds have seen such material. Worryingly, the unregulated and international nature of the web mean[s] that children are easily able to watch violent and hardcore images with one or two clicks, either intentionally or as a result of an innocent search.”
Ms. Perry is right and there is no doubt that pornographic images have become easier to access than in previous generations. And it is a concern for parents who are often less savvy and less technically able than their kids are online. However, regulating the Internet as Ms. Perry suggests is not the answer.
Ms. Perry has long advocated for an opt-in to porn feature that would be technically managed by ISPs. Many mobile phone carriers already do this and many of us may have experienced an inability to access certain websites on a smart phone without a phone call to customer service. This is the kind of opt-in situation Ms. Perry is talking about here for broadband services and she has advocated that it should be standard across all ISPs so that anyone in general will have to phone to remove the blocking or filtering taking place.
In spite of Ms. Perry’s slightly derogatory tone towards ISPs in this article (she says, “Of course, initially the industry baulked. Technically impossible! Censorship!”), she does praise TalkTalk and other ISPs for bringing out network level filters as options for parents to use on their home networks, but she goes on to say:
“And, crucially, at a discussion this week between the ISP industry, MPs and the Communications Minister, Ed Vaizey, we heard of the Government’s strong support for the idea. We also heard a strong message from the head of Ofcom that, given the technological convergence, if the ISP industry does not come up with a workable opt-in solution, regulation may be the only answer. I hope it does not come to this. Light touch regulation has helped to drive the creativity and reach of the internet. I urge the ISP industry to get behind the opt-in model and give consumers a choice on internet porn.”
The funny thing is that I was at this meeting and Ms. Perry was the main and the most vocal advocate for her opt-in model proposal. ISPs were mainly talking about their current and future plans to roll out filtering options and educate customers. Children’s charities at the meetings were warning about the dangers of children going around filters and accessing pornography anyway. And Ed Vaizey was supporting additional industry-led ideas around what to do.
What struck me – and what was not mentioned at all in Ms. Perry’s article – is that there seems to be a Big Society solution to this issue. Though there are several ways to regulate and technically block websites, the key issue is that parents don’t understand what tools are available to them and how to use them. And parents don’t know what kids will do to go around online filters and blocks. So why not seek ways to bridge this gap in understanding?
First, ISPs could find more and better ways to educate their consumers – especially parents – in how to use their products. Why don’t ISPs team up with children’s charities to offer free services to parents who are customers of ISPs? They can spend some time tutoring parents on what happens when kids go online and what options are available to help parents and kids be safer online. And this type of tutoring can be done in the home or at a convenient location. It seems that this would not only be a great service for ISPs to promote and offer their customers, but children’s charities can also get involved through their own campaigns and initiatives.
Second, with Martha Lane Fox’s push to get people online, it would seem that offering information and tutoring on online safety should go hand in hand with this outreach programme. This is a great opportunity to discuss safety for both parents and kids and in places it is happening already.
And finally, people in their communities can volunteer time to help parents step up their parental controls or walk them through issues that they may be facing. I, for one, do this with my own extended family as a start.
These ideas might seem a bit simplistic, but if companies like Trend Micro are doing campaigns like this to heighten awareness around online privacy, then there is no limit to what companies and communities can do to help parents learn a little bit more about being online. In the end, parents shouldn’t be looking to government to do something; they should be taking responsibility to learn about how they and their children can be safer online. Even the Mumsnet community agrees.