Controversial U.K. Porn Filtering Consultation Closes Today

Sep 6, 2012 8:00 AM PST

LONDON — A public consultation asking British citizens to weigh in on mandatory Internet porn filtering closes today.

The issue at hand is whether ISPs should be forced to offer options to users regarding adult material. The choices include: Opt-in, that would require users to request the content; Active Choice, that would force ISPs to give users filtering choices at sign up; and Active Choice Plus that would tell users what type of adult content is available and encourage filtering by allowing users to select the content they want blocked.

The BBC reported that more than 2,000 responses have been submitted according to the Department for Education.

Porn filtering has become a social hot potato in the country with conservative members of Parliament and religious leaders calling for mandatory restrictions to be placed on ISPs, while advocates for Internet freedom oppose the measures.

The ISP themselves are also leery of the plans, but are leaning toward Active Choice, despite the fact that it would only be offered to new users and isn’t an option for the majority of current customers.

According to PC Pro, ISP TalkTalk just released its own survey that found 37 percent of respondents favor Active Choice — the method it believes is a better choice than a blanket ban — while only one in five, or 22 percent of adults with children think porn should be blocked automatically.

The ISP’s study also found that 30 percent said filtering should only be applied if users ask for the censored feed.

BT and Virgin Media also confirmed that they would back Active Choice over an opt-in plan and told the BBC that they were "committed" to protecting families on the Internet.

But a “Safetynet” petition signed by more than 100,000 British citizens asking the country’s major ISPs — including BT, Sky and Virgin — to shut down access to porn on computers and mobile devices in an effort to protect children from viewing adult content is being delivered to the government just ahead of the consultation’s close.

Conservative Member of Parliament Claire Perry spearheaded the petition. She told the BBC, "The petition suggests a high level of support for the opt-in idea. We quite happily accept watersheds on TV and we are happy to accept adult films sitting behind PIN systems on satellite channels.

"Somehow when it comes to the Internet, all bets are off and the onus is entirely on the consumer. This has been an area where there has been relatively large corporate interests in not filtering, and rather intimidated consumers who are made to feel they should back off," Perry said.

Critics of the petition however point out that the research put forth was flimsy citing small sample sizes including data from a 2010 issue of Psychologies Magazine that surveyed a group of 14-16 year olds at one North London school, asking them if they had seen porn before the age of 10.

But Perry countered, "That is their number," referring to the researchers, Safermedia, "which was a small scale anecdotal study."

She did say she would be flexible on opt-in if it was "not what consumers wanted," or if it involved "obscene cost.”

"So far I have seen no evidence on any of those points," Perry said. "Ultimately, we just want the facts."

Despite a vocal media push by opt-in backers, opposition has emerged in support of Internet freedom. A group including Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group and Index on Censorship has sent a joint letter to Prime Minister David Cameron claiming that filtering would stymie dialogue between parents and children.

"Blocking is trivial to circumvent and it is likely a default blocking system would lull parents into a false sense of security," the letter said.

"A more complex, connected world needs parents to engage more with their children on issues of safety, privacy and personal development."

Sir Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the world wide web, told the BBC, "My personal preference has always been that if you want to block sites, you download software, and you install it for your children, rather than having the ISPs involved.

"The job of the ISPs is to provide good Internet connectivity, not to spy and not to block."

Findings of the consultation are due to be published later this year.

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