Friday, May 11, 2012

UK & EU Internet safety developments

There have been a number of developments in UK and EU Internet safety policy in recent weeks.

On 18th April 2012, a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into how safe children are online published its report. This follows on from the commitments made by ISPs in response to the recommendations set out in Letting Children be Children, the report of an independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood (also known as the Bailey Review), published by the Department for Education  in June 2011.

By way of context for the new parliamentary report, the previous Bailey Review included the following recommendations in relation to protecting children from inappropriate and harmful content online:
"Making it easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material from the internet: To provide a consistent level of protection across all media, as a matter of urgency, the internet industry should ensure that customers must make an active choice over what sort of content they want to allow their children to access. To facilitate this, the internet industry must act decisively to develop and introduce effective parental controls, with Government regulation if voluntary action is not forthcoming within a reasonable timescale. In addition, those providing content which is age-restricted, whether by law or company policy, should seek robust means of age verification as well as making it easy for parents to block underage access. ACTION: Internet industry and providers"
The Bailey Review went on to explain this active choice further:
"There has been much discussion about whether or not filters should be activated by default, with users only being able to access adult material if they take the trouble to remove the filters. We note, however, that Professor Tanya Byron concluded that this “could lull some parents into a false sense of security…[as they would] need do nothing more to help their children go online safely” (Byron, 2008). But we are also aware that Professor Byron recommended that the Government should consider a requirement for content filters on new home computers to be switched on by default if other approaches were failing to have an impact on the number and frequency of children coming across harmful or inappropriate content. 
We believe that it is now time for a new approach. Specifically, we would like to see industry agreeing across the board that when a new device or service is purchased or contract entered into, customers would be asked to make an active choice about whether filters should be switched off or on: they would be given the opportunity to choose to activate the solution immediately, whether it be network-level filtering by an ISP or pre-installed software on a new laptop. We believe that this will substantially increase the take-up and awareness of these tools and, consequently, reduce the amount of online adult material accessed by children."
The Bailey Review also recommended that the work being undertaken by the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) on age verification should "proceed without delay", stating that the industry "has the wherewithal to find a solution" and that the Government should consider regulation in this area if voluntary action is not forthcoming quickly".

In October 2011, industry responded to the Bailey Review with the launch by BT, TaltTalk, Virgin Media and Sky of a new code of practice on parental controls. This further described the concept of active choice thus:
“…new customers will be presented with a enforced choice whether or not to use the tools provided by their ISP (whether network, router or PC-based controls - “Controls”) to filter access to the internet at the point of purchase or installation/activation of the internet service (“Active Choice”). The introduction of Active Choice will empower parents, drive increased general awareness and communicate more widely the issues and concerns outlined in the Bailey Review...we are committed to making it easier for those parents who do wish to use Controls to make an Active Choice whether or not to use Controls on their account. Many parents may choose not to apply Controls for a range of reasons, such as trusting their children or opting to supervise them in other ways, but we believe that providing an Active Choice to parents and carers is likely to improve the take up of Controls.”
This enforced, active choice will be in place by October 2012 and will be provided free of charge. The code of practice also noted that "ISPs currently offer a range of Controls, and there is agreement, that no one type of Control offers a perfect solution", and that the signatories would work with "an independent body to conduct an annual review and public report on the take-up of and effectiveness of parental controls and our compliance with the Code."

However, the report of the recent parliamentary inquiry makes a stronger recommendation, that adult content should be blocked by default at network (rather than device) level:
"Many feel that device-level filters are no longer offering sufficient protection for children online. Only a minority of parents use these filters and this number is falling. An explosion in the number of internet-enabled devices makes the process of individual device protection even more arduous...It would be difficult and wrong to propose mandatory government censorship of internet pornography but clearly a new approach is required. A network-level “Opt-In” system, maintained by ISPs, that delivered a clean internet feed to customers as standard but allowed them to choose to receive adult content, would preserve consumer choice but provide an additional content barrier that protected children from accessing age inappropriate material. This model would emulate the system already used by most major UK mobile phone companies, where access to adult content is blocked until an age verification check is conducted by the network operator, and could use the filtering technology already operating in all schools and on some public Wi-Fi hubs."
The inquiry's report describes active choice as a "step in the right direction" but suggests that it "will do little to address the underlying problem of inadequate filtering unless a more energetic approach is taken with implementation plans." It also acknowledges the complexity of implementing such an opt-in model:
"Several key design and implementation issues would need to be addressed, including a workable age-verification interface and the need to design a granular permissioning system so that households can maintain different levels of access for different family members."
But that said:
"There is currently no evidence that an Opt-In model would add substantial cost or slow down internet access speeds and the main objections to the proposal appear to be ideological. We find it perverse that companies who apply an adult content block for their customers accessing the internet via a mobile device would argue against introducing a similar system for their fixed broadband customers."
Regional broadband consortia and local authorities have a wealth of experience in providing safe online  environments for children in schools, and I would venture that the task is much more complex and difficult than is suggested by the extracts from the parliamentary inquiry report above. Which isn't to say that this issue should be left on the "too difficult" pile, just that technical solutions are not as straightforward as might first appear. The same applies to age verification online. There are no silver bullets in these areas, nor are there ever likely to be: these are not issues that can ever be completely "fixed" as technologies will continue to change and develop. Continuing the drive to educate both children and parents in online safety remains crucial, to help avoid any complacency in this area. The 2008 Byron Review drew a useful analogy between Internet safety and the dangers of water:
"Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe – this isn’t just about a top-down approach. Children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim."
Still very appropriate today I think. The parliamentary report echoes the Bailey Review's recommendation that industry self-regulation is to be preferred - "The Panel believes that ISPs working together will deliver a more effective Opt-In system on a self-regulated basis and that government regulation of the internet should always be done with the lightest touch." However, "given the strength of the ideological resistance to introducing this change, we believe that the Government should seek backstop legal provisions to intervene should industry progress prove inadequate."

Finally, the inquiry's recommendations include the following:
  • 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.
  • The Government should launch a formal consultation on the introduction of an Opt-In content filtering system for all internet accounts in the UK. The most effective way to reduce overall development cost and create the most flexible solution would be for ISPs to work together to develop a self-regulated solution.
  • Public Wi-Fi provision should also be filtered in this way otherwise home-based controls will be easily circumvented.
A consultation based on the inquiry's recommendations is expected to be launched in the next few weeks. It is interesting to compare these developments with the recommendations set out in the EU's Strategy for A Better Internet For Children (related press release here), part of the Safer Internet Programme and published earlier this month. This encompasses a range of issues, focussing on providing more and better online content for children and young people as well as measures to keep them safe online. It also highlights the importance of common approaches across Europe, to facilitate better alerting and takedown mechanisms and support a digital single market. Schools are acknowledged as being central to teaching safe behaviours online: "Schools are best placed for reaching the majority of children, regardless of age, income or background, as well as other key recipients of internet safety messages, such as teachers and (indirectly) parents."

The strategy makes some specific recommendations in relation to age verification and protecting children from inappropriate and harmful content:
"The Commission...intends to propose in 2012 a pan-European framework for electronic authentication that will enable the use of personal attributes (age in particular) to ensure compliance with the age provisions of the proposed data protection regulation...Industry should...ensure the availability of parental controls that are simple to configure, are user friendly and accessible for all on all internet-enabled devices available in Europe. The tools should be efficient on any type of device and for any type of content, including user-generated content."
Another recommendation focusses on rating and labelling content:
"One of the risks children face online is seeing inappropriate content (such as pornography or violent content). The ambition is to have a generally applicable, transparent, and consistent approach to age rating and content classification EU-wide, for a variety of content/services (including online games, apps and educational and other cultural content) and to explore innovative solutions (e.g. rating by users or automated rating). The system should provide parents with understandable age categories, while recognising that the same content may be rated as appropriate for different age categories in different countries. This approach should be used consistently across sectors, thus addressing the discrepancies in the implementation of current systems for the different media in order to benefit market competition...Industry should...establish an EU approach to age rating and content classification applicable across services as described above, building on the success of existing initiatives such as PEGI (and) look into how these systems could be made interpretable by parental controls."
This recognition of the importance (and difficulty) of age rating and classification of online content is important I think. Finally, the EU strategy expresses a similar preference for self-regulation, suggesting that regulatory intervention will simply not be as effective:
"Ongoing effective industry self-regulation for the protection and empowerment of young people, with the appropriate benchmarks and independent monitoring systems in place, is needed to build trust in a sustainable and accountable governance model that could bring more flexible, timely and market-appropriate solutions than any regulatory initiatives."
It will be interesting to continue to compare developments at UK and EU level, commentary from the BBC states that more details of the EU's proposals are expected to be published at the end of May, and are likely to coincide with the government's consultation on the recommendations of the recent independent parliamentary inquiry.

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