Friday, 18 May 2012

Protecting children online

In 2004, the UK's mobile operators, under the auspices of the Mobile Broadband Group, published a code of practice about how to offer a safe browsing experience for children.   The result was that filters were automatically put on all pay-as-you-go handsets, regardless of the age of the user. In order to remove the filters, users needed either to ring up customer services or go into a mobile shop with proof of age.

At that time, few children accessed the internet via mobiles; today however, one in five children now own smartphones.

This responsible and far-sighted measure has helped to protect many children from potentially harmful content.   However, it was attacked this week by the Open Rights Group which published a report in which it found that 60 websites, including political commentaries and personal blogs, were incorrectly blocked by mobile filters designed to prevent children viewing adult content.

The group said the filters were ‘censoring’ normal web content.

In response the Mobile Broadband Group, denied this.  The group’s chairman said: "Even allowing for the ORG missing a few, 60 misclassified websites does not amount to anything that could reasonably be described as 'censorship', particularly when mobile operators are happy to remove the filters when customers show they are over 18 and will re-classify websites when misclassifications are pointed out to them….  this is how the small handful of websites that get referred to mobile operators each year are already dealt with".

Referencing their research the Open Rights Group has called on the government to reject automatic network filtering and instead give parents the option of whether they want such filters turned on.

The group claims that default block can have ‘harmful’ consequences for everyone.  We would argue that the consequences of children accessing adult material are far more harmful linked as they are to an increased risk of depression, self-esteem and identity disorders, premature sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, reduced educational attainment and success, constrained and stereotypical ideas about gender roles and negative consequences for cognitive, physical and psychological health.

There is no magic bullet; no filter system will be 100% effective and 100% error free but we believe that blocking adult material as a default measure remains the best way to protect children from harmful content.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory, states that ‘In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.’

The rights of children to a safe and healthy media environment must be taken seriously.

NB: If you are a parent it’s worth noting that this only applies to pay-as-you go phones; with contract phones users have to ask for filters to be installed.  This should always be done as a matter or course because the automatic filters installed on phones can be got around by using a wi-fi connection to access the internet rather than the phone specific 3G signal.

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