Lords bill demands ISPs and device makers block porn

5 Apr 2012
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Private Members Bill demands device manufacturers provide option to filter content

A new bill presented to the House of Lords demands both ISPs and device makers filter adult content.

The Online Safety Bill, raised in the Lords by Baroness Howe of Ildicote, asks for ISPs and mobile operators to "provide a service that excludes pornographic images" and for device makers to include ways to filter content at the point of purchase.

The proposal is a Private Members Bill, which rarely make it into law without Government support, and has yet to be subject to any debate.

Filtering by default will only reduce the degree of active interest and parental mediation, lull parents into a false sense of security and lead to over blocking

However, it's not the first time the issue has been raised. Claire Perry MP has repeatedly called for access to online pornography to be opt-in, with such content blocked by default.

The Government has instead helped broker a Code of Conduct between ISPs, requiring them to offer parental control software to customers - with Foreign Secretary William Hague specifically saying the Government does not agree with Perry's default filtering proposals.

Despite that, the issue has again been revived with Baroness Howe's bill, which goes further than Perry's own proposals. Like the MP's suggestions, it requires ISPs and mobile operators provide a "service which excludes pornographic images" unless the customer opts in, is over 18 and the company has verified that fact.

It also seeks to force device manufacturers to provide customers with a way to filter adult content "from an internet service at the time the device is purchased". That would apply to any devices that can connect to the internet.

The document also calls for ISPs to provide safety advice to their customers.

Backing for the bill?

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it would not support the bill, as industry was already taking steps to address the issue.

“We understand the sentiment behind this Private Members Bill, but it isn’t something that Government would support," a DCMS spokesman said. "Much can be achieved through self-regulation and it can be more effective than a regulatory approach in delivering flexible solutions that work for both industry and consumers. ”

Kathryn Wynn, a lawyer at Pinsent Masons, said Private Members Bills are "certainly less likely than Government sponsored bills" to be approved without Government support. However, she pointed out that others with a strong sense of "moral" grounding, including abortion laws, started out in such a way.

Wynn added that the success of the bill will likely hinge on whether industry efforts are deemed to go far enough. "When you have [industry] initiatives it raises a question mark over whether a law is necessary," she said.

Indeed, industry body the ISP Association said the bill was unnecessary.

"Filtering by default will only reduce the degree of active interest and parental mediation, lull parents into a false sense of security and lead to over blocking," ISPA told Outlaw.com, a legal website run by Pinsent Masons. "The question also arises of who decides what is pornographic and what is not."

"ISPA does not believe there is a need for legislation on this issue as there is healthy competition in the industry and ISPs are responsive to consumer demands," the organisation added.

There's also doubts over the effectiveness of adult content filters. TalkTalk's network level filter let through adult content last year, while our investigation into how blacklists are created highlighted the difficulty in deciding what content to block.

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