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Government to consult on automatic porn censorship proposals

The Government is to consult on proposals that would require internet service providers (ISPs) to offer to block customers' access to pornographic material by default.04 May 2012

The plans would force customers to actively 'opt-in' in order to view the material, according to a report by the BBC. The Guardian newspaper reported that it is understood that the consultation will consist of an "independent review" of options for censoring online pornography, but that the Government itself would not publish formal 'Green Paper' proposals.

Last month an independent Parliamentary inquiry (89-page / 2.37MB PDF) into online child protection advised that a "network-level 'opt-in' system, maintained by ISPs" could deliver "a clean internet feed" by default, but enable consumers to "choose to receive adult content" if they so wished. The inquiry report said such a system "would preserve consumer choice but provide an additional content barrier that protected children from accessing age-inappropriate material."

The inquiry members had recommended that the Government consult on the proposals.

"While parents should be responsible for their children's online safety, in practice people find it difficult to put content filters on the plethora of internet-enabled devices in their homes, plus families lack the right information and education on internet safety," Claire Perry MP who chaired the inquiry said at the time.

"It's time that Britain's Internet Service Providers, who make more than £3 billion a year from selling internet access services, took on more of the responsibility to keep children safe, and the Government needs to send a strong message that this is what we all expect," she said.

However, plans to introduce filter systems for pornography has drawn criticism from digital rights groups and the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA).

Jim Killock, director of digital rights campaign group the Open Rights Group (ORG) said: "We welcome a consultation but default filternets are awful. They block a wide range of innocent material; and nobody should be advocating broader and simpler censorship. All the independent evidence has pointed to giving parents simple tools and choices. There is no need to create network level censorship in the name of a porn opt-in."

Last month the ISPA, which is a trade industry body representing UK ISPs, told Out-Law.com that it was against proposals for automatic porn filters to be introduced. At the time ISPA was reacting to proposed new legislation submitted in the House of Lords.

The Online Safety Bill would have placed a "duty" on ISPs and mobile network operators that provide internet access services to "provide a service that excludes pornographic images" by default.

Only if subscribers aged over 18 actively "opt-in" to access the adult content would the ISPs and operators allow the material to be accessed, and even then access would have to be denied unless the website featuring the images "has an age verification policy which has been used to confirm that the subscriber is aged 18 or over".

The Online Safety Bill received a first reading in the House of Lords but "will make no further progress", according to the Parliament website.

"It is important for parents to take an active role in what their children see and do online and configure and tailor tools as appropriate," a spokesperson for the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) said in reaction to the Online Safety Bill proposals. "Many ISPs already offer solutions as part of their service to help prevent users accessing unwanted content online and ISPs actively promote these to their customers." 

"Filtering by default will only reduce the degree of active interest and parental mediation, lull parents into a false sense of security and lead to over blocking. The question also arises of who decides what is pornographic and what is not," the spokesperson said.

"ISPA does not believe there is a need for legislation on this issue as there is healthy competition in the industry and ISPs are responsive to consumer demands. The Bailey Report published last year also acknowledged that 'industry already does much to help educate parents about parental controls, age-restriction and content filters'. Government should concentrate on helping educate consumers to ensure they know about the tools already available to them to restrict unwanted content," the spokespersonsaid.

Last year four of the UK's biggest ISPs announced plans to present parents with "an active choice" over whether to control their children's access to some online content.

BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media said that they had "developed and agreed a code of practice" based on recommendations made in a Government-commissioned report on the sexualisation of children published in summer 2011.

That report called for the Government to regulate if the internet industry did not voluntarily develop better parental controls over online content. Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union charity and author of the report, had raised concerns about the increasing commercialisation and sexualisation of children. 

The ISPs' new code requires that customers be asked to choose whether to use parental controls when they purchase their network service.

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