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Parents and businesses are being asked whether there should be automatic online blocks to protect children from adult and harmful websites, in a Government consultation paper.
The consultation paper asks for views on the best way to shield children from internet pornography and other adult and potentially harmful content - including websites promoting suicide, anorexia, gambling, self-harm and violence, as well as those exposing them to online sexual grooming or cyber-bullying.
It is also calling for views on which approaches are effective and technically practical; what improvements are already in development; and what more could be done to build on industry’s progress in the last year in better protecting young people and helping parents manage what their children access online.
Children’s Minister Tim Loughton said: “The internet is transforming every aspect of society and family life – and opens up enormous opportunities for us all. But with the benefits come risks. Growing numbers of parents do not feel in control of what their families are exposed to online. Many want to take responsibility, but all too often they do not how know how because they find the technology too difficult to use or their children are more technically advanced then they are.
“We have been clear that the internet industry needs to raise its game to equip families better in being able to block what their children access on the internet. There has been some good progress to date but just as technology does not stand still, nor should we, in making sure our children are protected. We have always been clear we would turn up the heat on industry if it did not make fast enough progress.”
He added: “There is no silver bullet to solve this. No filter can ever be 100 per cent foolproof. There is a cottage industry of people, mostly operating outside the UK, continually creating and proliferating proxy websites that provide links to adult and harmful content. Automatic filtering on its own risks lulling parents into a false sense of security and there can never be any substitute for parents taking responsibility for how, when and where their children use the internet. The answer lies in finding ways to combine technical solutions with better education, information and, if necessary regulation further down the line.”
Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone called the nature and complexity of the changes initiated by the internet and new technologies “a huge challenge to us as a society”.
She said: “We should continue to encourage young people to use technology but it's important that they are made aware of the dangers involved too. We all have a role to play.”
The discussion paper was launched at a UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) conference where over 150 organisations debated the central issues with Children’s Minister Tim Loughton and Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone.
The 10-week call for evidence will help to inform policy and future practical steps.
Ministers will set out next steps later this year after discussions with UKCCIS – which brings together businesses, parents groups, children’s charities and academics.
The discussion paper asks for views on three broad options for the best approach in keeping children safest online, in a rapidly changing digital industry:
• A system, known as default-on or opt-in, where people’s home Internet Service Provider or each internet-enabled device (laptop and desktop computers; mobile phones; tablets and television) blocks harmful content automatically before any customer purchases it. They can later choose to adjust or remove the blocks if parents want to access the blocked websites
• A system where customers are always presented with an unavoidable choice about whether or not they want filters and blocks installed either on their home internet service and/or each internet-enabled device they are buying – an approach known as “active choice”. This applies at either the ‘point of purchase’, either online, telephone or over the counter or when a customer first switches on a new device or internet subscription
• A system that combines features of both systems, where customers are presented with a list of online content that will be blocked automatically unless they choose to unblock them – or active choice plus
The move comes after Prime Minister David Cameron said earlier this summer that there was a clear case to look at whether internet services or devices might come with a filter on as their default setting or having a combination of filter on and active choice.
Ministers think that such a system could only work if there was a clear prompt for the user, telling them about the settings and giving them a chance to change them. No current filter, on its own, is 100 per cent effective in blocking age-inappropriate web content so ministers think the most robust way forward is combining parental controls with better education and information for families on what they can do to protect their children from harmful content.
It follows work over the last year led by the Government working with UKCCIS members to strengthen practical steps to improve child internet safety, following last year’s independent Letting Children Be Children report by Reg Bailey, chief executive of Mothers’ Union.
The Bailey report argued that parents are best placed to manage what their children’s access online – but while many want to take control, all too often they do not know how.
The consultation paper 'Parental internet controls' can be found on the Department for Education website. Closing date for the consultation is Thursday 6 September.
Image: Children’s Minister Tim Loughton - credit Conservative Party