Leaked letter shows ISPs and government at war
- 15 July 2013
- From the section Technology
I've written before on the dialogue of the deaf between politicians and the internet industry over child internet safety - and now the relationship seems to be getting even worse. A letter sent to the UK's four leading ISPs from the government has made them very cross indeed. So cross that someone in the industry has passed it to me - you can read it in full below.
The letter comes from the Department for Education but it sets out a list of demands from Downing Street, with the stated aim of allowing the prime minister to make an announcement shortly. The companies are asked, among other things, for a commitment to fund an "awareness campaign" for parents. They're not particularly happy about promising cash for what the letter concedes is an "unknown campaign" but it's the next item on the menu which is the source of most of their anger.
This asks them to change the language they are using to describe the net safety filters they will be offering to internet users. Instead of talking of "active choice +", they are urged to use the term default-on. The letter says this can be done "without changing what you're offering".
A person at one ISP told me the request was "staggering - asking us to market active choice as default-on is both misleading and potentially harmful".
A little background on this issue might be helpful. For a long time, certain politicians and newspapers have been campaigning for default-on filters. They would like to see harmful and offensive - if legal - material blocked by the internet service providers unless customers choose to have the filters switched off.
"It sounds like a good idea until you think it through," said one industry source. "There are three reasons why it doesn't work. First it may be illegal under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers. Then there's the fact that no filter is perfect, and finally kids are smart enough to find their way around them."
A source at another company saw another reason why "default on" might be a bad idea: "It makes parents complacent - if you tell them the filter is switched on by default, they get a false sense of security. We want parents to make informed choices about the way their children use the internet."
And the companies point out that the man the government chose to examine this issue, Reg Bailey of the Mothers' Union, was also dubious about the use of default-on filters, wanting parents to be more active in understanding online dangers.
So the ISPs are instead offering something they call Active Choice, where customers are asked to make informed decisions about the level of filtering. Critics may say they are just quibbling about language, but the companies believe the precise wording is important - and they're angry at what they see as the government urging them to mislead their customers.
"What this is about is allowing the government and certain papers to declare a victory," said one industry source. "This country has led the world in blocking child abuse images, but they just want to keep the story bubbling on."
When I sought a response, Downing Street told me it never commented on leaks, but a spokesman said "the government continues to work with internet service providers to help keep children safe online."
At lunchtime today the internet providers will be meeting Claire Perry, the Prime Minister's special advisor on child safety issues, to give their response to the letter. Both sides appear to mistrust each others' motives, so finding an outcome that enhances child safety while producing an acceptable headline will prove tricky.
Here's the letter sent to the ISPs by the Department for Education, unedited and in full:
I am emailing to ask for some specific action which the prime minister plans to announce shortly. This follows a meeting yesterday at No 10 yesterday to discuss a range of child internet safety issues including parental controls and filters. The prime minister would like to make some further specific requests of industry and his office have asked us to ask you when you could deliver the following actions.
1. Implementing browser intercept
I understand that Talk Talk will be trialling a "browser intercept" to force existing customers to choose either to proceed with parental controls (pre-ticked), choose their own settings or turn them off completely. The prime minister wants to announce that by the end of the year, every household with a broadband internet connection will have had to make a decision to "opt-out" of installing filters. Will the other three ISPs consider making a commitment to adopting this approach - even before it has been trialled?
2. Age-verification systems/closed-loop
The prime minister expects customers to be required to prove their age/identity before any changes to the filters are made. I understand that you will all be implementing "closed-loop" systems which will notify account holders of any changes that are made to the filters and that you have robust systems in place but please could you all confirm the precise information that is required to enable customer to access, set-up and change their filters?
3. Awareness campaign for parents
I understand that it was agreed at Claire Perry's meeting a few weeks ago that Talk Talk, BT and others would undertake some further research to establish what the focus of the campaign should be. The prime minister would like to be able to announce a collective financial commitment from industry to fund this campaign. I know that it will be challenging for you to commit to an unknown campaign but please can you indicate what sum you will pledge to this work that the PM can announce.
4. Using the phrase "default-on" instead of "active-choice +"
The prime minister believes that there is much more that we can all do to improve how we communicate the current position on parental internet controls and that there is a need for a simplified message to reassure parents and the public more generally. Without changing what you will be offering (ie active-choice +), the prime minister would like to be able to refer to your solutions are "default-on" as people will have to make a choice not to have the filters (by unticking the box). Can you consider how to include this language (or similar) in the screens that begin the set-up process? For example, "this connection includes family-friendly filters as default [or as standard] - if you do not want to install this protection please un-tick the box" (obviously not intended to be drafting). Would you be able to commit to including "default-on" or similar language both in the set-up screen and public messaging?
We are all aware of the really excellent work that you are doing and but there are a number of specific areas that the prime minister thinks need further immediate action. You are likely to receive a further message from colleagues in DCMS and the Home Office regarding tackling illegal images but given the short deadline for this work we thought it better to give you some time to work on these issues in the meantime. I need to report back to No 10 by the end of the week on these points so I would be grateful if you could consider this request as a matter of urgency and respond by midday Friday.
Apologies for the very tight deadline and grateful for your help with this work.