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MPs Demand Action On Pornography Filters

A cross-party, independent parliamentary inquiry has criticised ISPs for not doing enough to safeguard younger users from pornography (and other harmful websites) on the internet.

The inquiry into online child protection found that "many children" are easily accessing porn, and that this is having a negative impact on their well-being, in terms of attitudes to relationships, sex and also body image.

The report noted that there are problems in terms of younger children accidentally finding adult content, and older teens deliberately seeking out more hardcore material.

In discussing the responsibilities of ISPs, a new "Active Choice" program is being implemented later this year, where consumers can actively choose to install device-level filters on their connection.

While this is a step in the right direction, the report notes that "ISPs have not made detailed plans to roll this product out to all customers and with the exception of TalkTalk, the product will not protect all devices in the home."

Therefore, the inquiry said there was "strong support", and should be a consultation on the implementation of an opt-in filter for adult web content. In other words, by default, a broadband line would have adult material blocked by the ISP when first set up. Should the user wish to access such content, they'd have to request the filter is turned off, subject to some form of age verification.

The cross-party inquiry further argued that such a system is put in place by service providers for mobiles, so why not fixed line connections. It stated: "There is currently no evidence that an Opt-In model would add substantial cost or slow down internet access speeds and the main objections to the proposal appear to be ideological."

"We find it perverse that companies who apply an adult content block for their customers accessing the internet via a mobile device would argue against introducing a similar system for their fixed broadband customers."

Of course, this skates around the issue of parental responsibility, monitoring the child's use of the net, talking about it, and installing parental control software (which is already out there in plentiful supply, and free) on the family computer.

The inquiry noted: "While parents should be responsible for monitoring their children's internet safety, in practice this is not happening. Parents find device filters difficult to install and maintain, lack internet safety education and up-to-date information."

Well, perhaps parents should be getting themselves a bit more educated and actually being proactive in such an important issue, if they do lack knowledge.

Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch noted that "the report offers no definition of what is pornography or adult content."

"Without offering - or even attempting to offer - a definition of adult content or pornography, the report demonstrates its fundamental failure - this is a moral argument, not a serious attempt to understand the challenges of new technology."

Pickles asks: "Are internet providers also expected to spy on their customers to check they are not looking at something they should not be? It's far from clear how filtering works without this kind of monitoring, particularly given the inevitability of evasion measures."

Indeed, more technologically clued-up, older kids would doubtless be able to get round such measures anyway. That's where parenting really comes in, or should do.

He added that this affair is a "stark warning" to anyone who thinks that government plans to monitor web use - with increased powers for GCHQ snooping supposedly incoming - won't lead to calls for the powers-that-be to take control of what we can browse.

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Darren Allan

Darran has over 25 years of experience in digital and magazine publishing as a writer and editor. He's also an author, having co-written a novel published by Little, Brown (Hachette UK). He currently writes news, features and buying guides for TechRadar, and occasionally other Future websites such as T3 or Creative Bloq and he's a copy editor for TechRadar Pro. Darrran has written for a large number of tech and gaming websites/magazines in the past, including Web User and ComputerActive. He has also worked at IDG Media, having been the Editor of PC Games Solutions and the Deputy Editor of PC Home.