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ISPs told to encourage consumers to use parental controls as Government backs away from default filtering plan

Internet service providers (ISPs) should encourage customers with children to utilise parental controls, the Government has said.17 Dec 2012

The Department for Education (DfE) said that parents had asked to be "made more aware of parental controls" and be given information on "how to use them" in responses to a consultation it had run on parental controls on the internet.

DfE had consulted on the possibility of forcing ISPs to automatically block access to pornography and other adult content unless consumers elected to opt out at the point of purchase, but the Department has dropped the plan after it reported that only a limited number of parents had backed it.

"There was no great appetite among parents for the introduction of default filtering of the internet by their ISP: only 35% of the parents who responded favoured that approach," DfE said in a document detailing its response (51-page / 770KB PDF) to the views raised in its consultation. "There were even smaller proportions of parents who favoured an approach which simply asked them what they would like their children to access on the internet, with no default settings (13%) or a system that combines the latter approach with default filtering (15%)."

The Government's decision to step back from introducing default filtering was welcomed by the Open Rights Group, which has previously warned that filtering systems can lead to "over-blocking"

"Default filtering would disrupt harmless websites and fail parents, so we are extremely glad the government has rejected it," Jim Killock, executive director of the ORG, said in a statement.

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.

Now the Government has asked ISPs to "go one step further" in order to help parents make use of "available safety features".

"The Government is now asking all internet service providers to actively encourage people to switch on parental controls if children are in the household and will be using the internet," DfE said. "Internet service providers have made great progress to date in implementing 'active choice' controls where all new customers are asked if they want to switch on parental controls."

"The Government is urging providers to go one step further and configure their systems to actively encourage parents, whether they are new or existing customers, to switch on parental controls. The Government believes providers should automatically prompt parents to tailor filters to suit their child’s needs e.g. by preventing access to harmful and inappropriate content," it said.

ISPs will also have to "put in place appropriate measures" in order to verify that the person who is setting up parental controls is themselves aged over 18.

"This builds on the child internet safety approach already established by the four main ISPs by steering parents towards the safety features and taking responsibility for setting up those that are most appropriate for their own children," DfE said. "It will also help parents think about the knowledge and skills children need to prevent harm from the behaviour of other people on the internet: we are clear from the consultation that parents are conscious of these risks as well as those posed by age-inappropriate content."

DfE said that the Government would "not prescribe detailed solutions" but that it expects ISPs to "adapt the principles" of the approach it has outlined in their "services, systems and devices" in order that "customers, and particularly parents and children, have highly-effective, easy to use and free tools that facilitate children’s safety online".