Leaked letter shows ISPs and government at war

Girl browsing the internet

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".

Start Quote

What this is about is allowing the government and certain papers to declare a victory”

End Quote Industry source

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.

Zip it, block it, flag it A previous internet safety campaign

"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:

Dear All,

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.

Start Quote

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”

End Quote

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.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    Perhaps next no.10 will propose a ban on access to all but approved "safe" web sites, for everyone's protection of course. I'm sure the Chinese could provide technical expertise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    I do not believe that such a grammatically incorrect letter could have been sent from no.10 but could you please possibly maybe indicate a positive (++) if you feel that at some level whether it is up or down (+ -) that I am making any sense whatsoever in try to convey a sense of authority over which I have no understanding whatsoever thanks?

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    Wouldn't it be cheaper just to send leaflets to schools telling parents to get their arses into gear about what their children do online and what/if they can do or even want to do about it.

    To me this just seems like an excuse to try control what we can see online...again. Don't they have anything better to do than make people more untrusting of the Government then they already are?

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    If my daughter - trained from an early age in internet use - couldn't find her way around externally-imposed filters I'd feel that I'd failed to teach her properly!

    She knows it is her responsibility to choose what she does online wisely - & I monitor what she does and challenge as and when appropriate. If she transgresses it's not a matter of filtering, it's Internet off!

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    What harm is caused to children of what ages by how much exposure to what kind of material in what context? And in what peer-reviewed journal does it say this?

    Without knowing this how will we know what to block from whom? How will it not be subjective and open to abuse?

    This is about spending ISP customers money on making a statement on what sort of a party the Tories are, not protecting anyone

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    What happened to individual responsibility?? The government wants to legislate that everybody has to take care of others too stupid, dumb and lazy to do it themselves. They are breeding a population of unintelligent zombies! All the better I guess so they don't question anything the government does!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    Dear ISP,

    I have opted out of all filtering of internet content. I do not wish to pay for the extra processing, software and services involved. I recommend, if you wish to remove pornography from the internet you do so by sending the CPS a list of sites and their hosting details to see if prosecution can be pursued.

    With that sophisticated software, it should not take long.

    Yours etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    Come on DC.

    Who exactly is lobbying to put this in place? Names - now!

    Don't think it was part of the manifesto, was it? No, we'll get on with completing what you said you would do....

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    You only become 'offended' when you give yourself permission to be offended! Some folks find all manner of things 'offensive'... others don't. Each of us has to choose for ourselves when to be offended: there is no simple rule for deciding what is going to cause folks to take offense. Nothing is of itself offensive, someone has to choose to be offended!

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    #381. Online porn can be found easily when searching for other things. A colleague of mine was looking for van hire firms when we were working in Finland and the 2nd page listed by Google was a porn site - using 'Van' and written in English, clearly intended to get people clicking it before they knew what it held.

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    294. amissahit
    The fact is children are harmed"

    How would this stop that?

    It is VERY hard to come across pornography 'by accident' on the Internet.

    Any child who has viewed pornography has gone looking for it. If it's blocked, they'll just spend a few minutes more Googling how to get around the blocks, and they'll be viewing it again.

    The only way to block porn - unplug your Internet..

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    377. Alan K
    so how difficult is it to block unsavoury age-related content?"

    1) Who decides what is 'unsavoury'? You and I may have different definitions. Is nude art 'unsavoury'? What about sex education material? What about violence (eg news)?

    2) ISP's may 'block' things, but you have to use the quotes, because they're only 'blocked' if you don't spend 10 minutes trying to get around the block

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    377.Alan K
    Both example are beaten incredably easily with a few extra clicks. The blocks are pointless as they don't work in any way, shape or form in practise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    377.Alan K
    ISP's are quick enough to block Torrents and Premier League Football streaming so how difficult is it to block unsavoury age-related content?

    For the obvious reason. An outright block is one thing, it means that you can't access it period. I imagine that's simpler than making it a filter, where access is possible.

    PS: If it's legal, it doesn't matter if you find it unsavoury.

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    However, ISP's are quick enough to block Torrents and Premier League Football streaming so how difficult is it to block unsavoury age-related content?

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    They really are terrified of the Internet aren't they? They hate the fact that millions of people in the country know how to use it better than they do. They'll change it beyond all recognition if we let them. We'd have a system like China (or even North Korea) if they thought they'd get away with it.

    And another thing, how many errors can they fit into an official government email?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    Why don't the "concerned" newspapers that worry about access to certain websites publish instructions to parents in their publications about how to set-up parental controls in Explorer and other search engines. Or would be too constructive and leave them with nothing to complain about?

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    @367 Jigsy
    "I'm just surprised the gov't haven't gone the whole hog and made sex illegal; and have everybody reproduce via artificial insemination.

    Or maybe that's yet to come?"

    Remember that story on here last week about ultra cheap IVF? Don't say you haven't been warned ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    The internet operates on personal responsibility - I am responsible for what I choose to access and for what I choose to post. So are you. I teach my child how to use the internet correctly, supporting & challenging her as appropriate. So should you.

    Censorship is unacceptable. Should your ISP pander to government bullying & lies, change ISP to one more ethical.

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    Looks like soon i'll have to make that awkward phone call to my ISP,

    "hello Mr Gowans how can we help you"
    "yeah I want porn, I want it now"
    "ok let me just push a button and enable it on your account"
    "thanks" fapfapfapfapfapfapfap

    Why should I and millions of others be made to do that because some parents cant take responsibility for their childrens browsing habits and opt for a block?


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