Children and the Internet – Keeping them Safe (Online Safety Bill)

10 Mar 2014

By Chandni Rani, Associate

Latest figures show that an increasing number of young children are savvier about the internet than their parents and easily circumvent internet filters that have been put in place by their parents. Baroness Howe's Online Safety Bill goes some way in addressing this problem by proposing to impose compulsory internet filters on all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Mobile Phone Operators (MPOs).

A report carried out by Ofcom earlier this year revealed that many children - 18% of 12 to 15 year olds - know how to disable internet filters put in place by their parents to block inappropriate content. 42% of the same age group know how to delete their browsing history and 29% know how to go online in privacy mode.

Worryingly, almost half (44%) of parents with 8 to 11 year old children say their child's knowledge of the internet is superior to theirs. This figure rises to 63% for parents of 12 to 15 year old children.

The Government put forth proposals in July 2013, which called on ISPs to block pornography by default but did not make this a compulsory requirement. Under the plans, only new customers would be asked if they wanted to switch on an internet filter but the four biggest ISPs (BT, Sky, Virgin Media and Talk Talk which account for 95% of households in the UK) plan to write to their existing customers to ask whether they want to switch on internet filters. The smaller ISPs which account for the remaining 5% of households have not committed to the plans. Although this sounds like a small minority, it accounts for approximately 1 million UK households.

Many have criticised the Government's plans for not going far enough to protect children. The biggest concern is that the regime is voluntary and self-regulatory and does not force or incentivise ISPs to act.

This concern is somewhat addressed by the Online Safety Bill, a Private Members' Bill introduced in the House of Lords by Baroness Howe on 14 May 2013. The Bill was debated by the House of Lords during its Second Reading on 6 December 2013 and the Committee Stage is now due to be scheduled.

The Bill would impose a compulsory requirement on ISPs and MPOs to provide an internet service that excludes adult content. All subscribers would then be required to opt in to make adult content accessible provided they are over the age of 18 and the ISP or MPO has been able to verify their age. The Bill also proposes requiring electronic device manufacturers to provide a means of filtering adult content and recommends that parents be educated about online safety.

The compulsory nature of the regime has been hailed by parents, teachers and politicians alike as being a step in the right direction to protect children. There was a time not too long ago when adult material, such as magazines and videos, were only available to purchase by adults, in most cases requiring the provision of age verifying ID. Adult content has become all too accessible for young children in the age of the internet and the Bill goes some way in putting adult material back on the top shelf, so to speak. The Bill would also require electronic device manufacturers to have in built filters, which would ensure that children are protected no matter which device they use, be it computers, laptops, tablets or smart phones.

One concern, however, is whether the internet filters are sophisticated enough to recognise which sites actually contain adult content and should be blocked and which sites are legitimate and should remain accessible. As an example of current internet filters not working, it has been noted that some public Wi-Fi hot spots that have 'family friendly' filters block access to websites that discussed the Government's plans to block adult content simply because it made reference to the term 'pornography'. It is clear that, in order for the filters to be effective and in order to justify their compulsory imposition, they must be workable and not unnecessarily restrictive.

One of the most important proposals of the Bill is to educate parents about online safety. This is a fundamental measure that is arguably the most effective in keeping children safe online. There is no substitute for parents taking the responsibility to ensure their child is safely surfing online, although given the proliferation of searching and messaging on the internet in the last decade and an ever increasing reliance on computers, it is no surprise that an increasing number of children, for whom computers are the norm, know more about the internet than their parents. Simply setting up internet filters does not in itself protect children online and it is important that parents do not become complacent about their child's online safety, simply because there is an internet filter in place.

Raising awareness amongst parents and children about the risks of the internet and how to stay safe online is a key factor in protecting children. 'Safer Internet Day', which is celebrated every February in over 100 countries worldwide, took place last month on 11 February with the strap-line 'Let's create a better internet together'. The day is coordinated by Insafe, a European network of national centres that promote online safety. The UK Safer Internet Centre organises the day in the UK and has stated that it was a great success in raising awareness amongst parents, teachers and children alike through the provision of information packs, videos, quizzes and activities.

It is clear that the Online Safety Bill is a big step forward in protecting children online and dares to go as far as making the imposition of filters compulsory on ISPs, MPOs and electronic device manufacturers. Whilst it remains to be seen how effective the policy would be and whether the network level filter would work sensibly in practice, it is clearly a step in the right direction to ensure that the Government, ISPs, MPOs electronic device manufacturers and parents are collectively responsible for our children's online safety. Now it's up to Parliament to put the Bill on our statute books.

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