Internet porn blocking consultation draws to close in UK

Online porn ISPs want to allow users to choice whether to filter content, rather than force it upon them

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A consultation into whether UK internet users should have to opt-in in order to access adult content is set to close on Thursday.

Over 2,000 responses had been submitted by the eve of the deadline, the Department for Education told the BBC.

Proposals for an opt-in system are supported by several MPs, but fiercely opposed by internet rights campaigners.

Internet service providers (ISPs) have also voiced concerns, favouring instead an "active choice" system.

This method, already in place at several ISPs, prompts a new customer to choose if they want inappropriate content to be filtered out by their provider.

However, the option is currently only offered to new customers, and therefore does not address the huge majority of internet users already set up.

The findings of the consultation are due to be published later in the year.

'All bets are off'

A petition with 110,000 signatures in support of "opt-in" will be delivered to 10 Downing Street, backed by Conservative MP Claire Perry.

"The petition suggests a high level of support for the opt-in idea," she told the BBC.

"We quite happily accept watersheds on TV and we are happy to accept adult films sitting behind PIN systems on satellite channels.

"Somehow when it comes to the internet, all bets are off and the onus is entirely on the consumer.

Porn plans

The government's discussion paper canvassed opinion on three possible ways of helping parents filter inappropriate content. They were:

  • Opt-in: Also known as "default on", homeowners would be required to contact their ISP in order to have access to adult content (similar to existing systems in use for accessing the internet on smartphones)
  • Active Choice: The popular system among ISPs, an active choice rule would mean providers would have to present filtering options to all customers as they set up their connections
  • Active Choice Plus: This method would give users a detailed breakdown of content types, and would encourage filtering by pre-selecting options to block content

"This has been an area where there has been relatively large corporate interests in not filtering, and rather intimidated consumers who are made to feel they should back off."

However, the petition has been criticised by some campaigners for citing surveys with small sample sizes.

In particular, a statistic claiming that one in three under-10s had been exposed to pornography online was taken from an issue of Psychologies Magazine in 2010.

The magazine had surveyed a group of 14-16 year olds at one North London school, asking them if they had seen porn before the age of 10.

Ms Perry distanced herself from the statistics presented with the petition.

"That is their number," she told the BBC, referring to campaign organisers Safermedia, "which was a small scale anecdotal study."

'Trivial to circumvent'

In a joint letter to the Prime Minister, several rights groups - including Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group and Index on Censorship - argued that an opt-in system undermined dialogue between parents and children.

"Blocking is trivial to circumvent and it is likely a default blocking system would lull parents into a false sense of security," the letter said.

"A more complex, connected world needs parents to engage more with their children on issues of safety, privacy and personal development."

Sir Tim Berners-Lee: "The job of ISPs is to provide good internet connectivity and is not to spy and not to block"

This view was backed up by Sir Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the world wide web, who told the BBC: "My personal preference has always been that if you want to block sites, you download software, and you install it for your children, rather than having the ISPs involved.

"The job of the ISPs is to provide good internet connectivity, not to spy and not to block."

BT and Virgin Media both confirmed to the BBC that they would, like most ISPs, back active choice over an opt-in plan - adding that they were "committed" to protecting families on the internet.

Ms Perry said she would change her stance on "opt-in" if it was "not what consumers wanted", or if it involved "obscene cost".

"So far I have seen no evidence on any of those points," she said. "Ultimately, we just want the facts."

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