Julia Kukiewicz, Editor of Choose.net discusses the impact of the parental control software that were controversially forced on UK ISPs six months ago.
In January, I wrote a post on this blog to mark the launch of BT’s Parental Control software. At the time, the so-called ‘opt out’ controls were strongly criticised. The always quotable Jimmy Wales called the push for more controls “an absolutely ridiculous idea that won’t work”, while others raised concerns that this was the first step to wider censorship.
I called it a real life example of The Thick of It’s search for a “sexy and eye-catching and… free and universally popular and instantly applicable” policy: an idea that sounds big and hard-hitting—but is actually pretty small and, more importantly, very free for the Treasury.
Almost six months later, the rest of the UK’s big ISPs have also launched their control software and the battle lines remain drawn more or less as they were. Crucially, though, broadband customers haven’t revolted, either against controls or for better ones, which makes it very likely that, in another six months, the Government will be able to call this initiative a success.
Small (or unseen) impact
In part, opposition has quietened because the impact of this plan so far has been smaller than even most of its defenders thought it would be.
The big story about controls was ‘default on’, that the software would be installed automatically unless users clicked ‘no’. In fact, this is not even nearly the case. When I tested BT Controls as a new user, for example, I found that the software would never automatically install and it was even possible to get around the install without clicking ‘no’. The ISPs call this ‘Active Choice’ and it’s essentially much less aggressive than we expected.
The push for existing users to install controls has also been less aggressive. ISPs have stuck to new customers and low level marketing, for example on their customer portals.
However, if a lot of customers are using controls, which given the facts above seems unlikely but is possible, there could be unseen impact. From the point of view of parents using controls, blocks could be working poorly, exposing ‘safe to surf’ kids to inappropriate content. And there could be an economic impact on websites losing visits because they’re blocked, perhaps unfairly as part of category over-blocking.
The scale of these unseen impacts is very difficult to measure, although the Open Rights Group are making some efforts to track websites that may be economically affected by over-blocking.
The turn to education
In general, however, broadband providers have been able to turn the conversation away from the potential impacts of their controls, the technical aspects of website blocking, and towards internet safety in general.
The UK’s big four ISPs have put millions of pounds into an education site called Internet Matters designed to inform parents about various aspects of online safety: cyber bullying; online reputation; identity theft and grooming, as well as inappropriate content.
The site is well laid out, with clear facts and tips for talking to children. In other words, it promotes the kind of parenting that opponents of ISP controls advocate. The practical information on various kinds of software and browser blocks that might be helpful is almost incidental.
Whether this conciliatory approach will actually lead to more parents using ISP controls is another matter.
At the moment only about 20% of households with a child under 15 have parental controls from an ISP installed, according to Ofcom research, though many more use measures like turning on Google SafeSearch. We know that prompting or pre-installing controls does lead to greater use: 43% said they’d only started using controls because they were prompted to (say, on setting up a smart TV).
But we also know that, among parents not using parental controls, very few say that it’s because they don’t have enough information or don’t understand the issues: that could prove a major barrier to signing up through education.