Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The watershed in the on-line space

Earlier this year the BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall, announced plans to introduce encryption technology to the iPlayer, so that the estimated 500,000 UK homes where viewers do not have a TV set but watch the corporation’s programmes on-demand would have to start paying the licence fee.

This week Mr Hall appeared before a Select Committee of MPs and told them this change was necessary “to reflect the way people are consuming BBC programmes.”  When and how this is enacted would require legislation and so is, in the words of Mr Hall, “a matter for the government”.

What is particularly interesting about this is that, in the all discussion of new technologies to potentially limit access to the iPlayer, no mention was made of limitations to protect children.  If technology exists to limit non-licence fee payers’ access to content the similar measures should be imposed to protect children.

At present all that stands between a child and access to post-watershed material is a tick in a box to confirm that the user is over 18; as the mother of a seven year old I can confirm that this is not beyond the wit of a determined child and offers very little real protection.  The iPlayer does offer a parental control option but this is not turned on as a default and, as I have yet to see an advertisement for it, I think we can assume that few parents are aware of its existence.

The importance of robust age verification has figured strongly in the debate about protecting children from online pornography and it is time to extend the discussion to other categories of on-demand content.

We took this issue up with Ofcom a few years ago and were told that they considered the restriction of certain types of content to be a purely voluntary measure for video-on-demand providers because they don’t consider that anything broadcast on UK television would ‘seriously impair the physical, mental or moral health of persons under the age of eighteen’.

However, times are changing.  The number of hours of television viewed via the iPlayer continues to grow and now this is an issue which really has to be addressed.  Claudio Pollack, Director of Ofcom's Consumer and Content Group, said: "Ofcom recognises that the growth of on-demand TV is posing new challenges for parents and regulators.  We're working on ways to help ensure that the protections viewers expect from the watershed apply beyond broadcast TV."   We have written to Mr Pollack to ask for details of the possible solutions under discussion and for some idea of the time frame for action.

Ofcom’s Director of Standards, Tony Close, recently described the watershed as “a vital means of protecting viewers”; we agree wholeheartedly and it is important that a similar level of protection is developed in the online space.

Post-watershed material should only be available to viewers who have been subject to a more rigorous age-verification check than the current tick box system.  Presently subscribers to cable and satellite services have to enter a PIN number to access post watershed content which they have download and we would like to see a similar system on broadcaster’s websites.  We would like to see a PIN number which could be provided by the viewer’s internet service provider, telephone company or the TV licensing body each of which need to paid for, in the vast majority of cases, by an adult.  We believe that there are feasible steps that can and should be taken by broadcasters to control access to post-watershed material by children.

Next year is an election year and we have prepared a policy paper on this issue for MPs and prospective MPs.  We will be asking them to consider the inconsistency of the present arrangements and pressing for a commitment to further action to protect children. 

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