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Nick Pickles: The Prime Minister has the right policy on internet safety - and should stick with it

PICKLES NICKNick Pickles is Director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch. Follow Nick on Twitter

Today Big Brother Watch, along with civil society groups like the Open Rights Group, Index on Censorship and Consumer Focus, has signed a joint letter to the Prime Minister and called for him to resist calls for Government to change the regulation of internet content.

We’ve written the letter in response to a petition that calls for the Government to install a ‘default block’ for some content (nobody has defined what this would be) and abandon its current policy of giving parents a clear choice about parental controls.

This position is based on two comprehensive studies, one undertaken for the last Government by Professor Tanya Byron and one published in 2011, by Reg Bailey of the Mothers Union.

Both reviews concluded that parents are the best people to decide how to control their children’s internet use, and that by using a ‘default block’ you undermine the dialogue between parents and their children, while also lulling some parents into a false sense of security.

Sadly, the petition is not based on the same expertise that produced the Government’s two reviews, but one particularly startling statistic: “1 in 3 ten year olds have seen pornography online.” It’s source? A magazine’s canvassing of a single school in North London. We don’t know how many children took part.

Of course, some parents will have different views on what content their children can see so it’s entirely reasonable to allow them the ability to block more or less than other parents. Default blocking takes away that parental responsibility, enforcing a moral standard of one group across the entire country.

A default blocking system is exactly how China controls what it’s citizens can see, policed by tens of thousands of dedicated digital cops who are watching what people do to make sure they’re not working around the blocks. That’s the only way a blocking system can work effectively – just ask any child how easy it is to access Facebook on school computers that ‘block’ the site.

The Government agreed with Industry last year that by October 2012 ‘Active Choice’ would be in place, and it’s already being taken up - around 1 in 3 new customers joining TalkTalk are activating parental controls, for example. Changing a policy that hasn’t even been fully implemented would be disruptive to a critical part of Britain’s economy, internet service providers, while not even considering the evidence of its effectiveness.

The Department for Education’s consultation closes today and will give ministers a welcome opportunity to see how the Active Choice system can be boosted to support parents without the inherent dangers of the state regulating what we can see online.

Technology is not a substitute for parenting, so let’s make it easier for parents to make their own choice, rather than taking that choice away from them.


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