Why online safety isn't child's play any moreOctober 2013
Online safety is a big headline grabber at present, in an era when many children are more internet-savvy than their parents.
Issues such as bullying, grooming by paedophiles and online stalking are of concern to parents, along with the ease of access to hardcore pornography on the net.
Consequently, many people in government and the general public (including around 89% of parents) feel that media companies and online providers have a responsibility to do what they can to limit access to images and content that may be disturbing, as well as protect younger internet users, who may be net-savvy but not life-aware.
Government pressure has been mounting. In July, the Department of Education asked ISPs Sky, Virgin and BT to get behind the UK’s fourth big ISP, Talk-Talk and adopt a browser intercept that would force existing customers to choose either to proceed with parental controls (the default setting), choose their own settings, or turn them off completely.
The three responded angrily and in fact it later transpired that Talk-Talk was not, as the DoE had claimed in its letter, planning to install any such intercept.
One reason for anger is that ISPs, in general, do not wish to be placed in the role of censors or of doing the Government’s dirty work. Some civil liberties campaigners are concerned that if ISPs are asked to censor pornography, then other types of sites might follow, such as terrorist, racist or extremist sites, with the ISP perhaps facing the risk of being legally liable if users do manage to access such sites in spite of filters.
UK ISPs prefer the ‘Active Choice’ setting on filters to ‘Default On’, under which users can choose to block access to certain content.
‘Active Choice’, they claim, makes consumers feel involved in the choices they make on internet filters, and they also add that filters can, in any case, give parents a false sense of security. They also claim that UK ISPs are already displaying a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility because of their industry code.
As an example, they cite that all UK ISPs offer free parental control options that can be easily downloaded and installed to prevent children accessing sites without parental consent.
BT, for instance, offers its Family Protection software, developed with security software firm McAfee, available free from its customer services site at http://bt.custhelp.com. This allows parents to restrict which websites their children visit, track their online usage, be alerted if inappropriate content is accessed, and keep an eye on emails and instant messaging.
The offer is part of BT’s general CSR policy and the corporate works in partnership with the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) to educate parents on practical ways to protect their children.
In fact, all the UK’s broadband providers and media companies work together on policy. BSkyB’s head of corporate responsibility, Daniella Vega, says: “Everything we do with regard to child safety is intertwined with the benefits for the business. It all stems from what is material to the business - as a broadband provider, child safety is absolutely a material issue: you can’t have one without the other.”
Sky already had a strong track record on child safety because of its background in TV, claims Vega. “We always had parental controls on set-top boxes, which was a free value-add for the customer and it was easy to set up and protect children from post-watershed content, etc.” she says.
“Once we ventured into the broadband market we’ve been active with other ISPs at industry level but also on our own. For example we were the founding members of the IWF, which meant that we co-drafted the UK ISP code of practice on child net safety.”
BSkyB provides both free parental controls and advice and information to customers. “Also, our public Wifi areas – 20,000 hotspots around UK – restrict access to adult content,” says Vega.
“We were the first broadband provider to restrict access to adult content through public wifi.”
However, a recent survey by AdaptiveMobile that found 51% of UK wifi hotspots allowed access to pornographic and violent sites.
At the end of the year, Sky will offer a whole-of-home solution. “This will be one set-up covering every device,” says Vega.
“People are now accessing the internet via smart TVs, mobiles, tablets etc, not just computers, and this will have just one switch, so you can know as a parent that if you’re downstairs watching TV, your children can’t be upstairs accessing something you don’t want them to. And it will be free to our customers.”
However, says Vega, more interesting than the filters and content issue that comes in for so much debate is the educational side of online safety that ISPs can provide – teaching children and young people how to stay safe online so that they can confidently surf the net. This is where a firm’s real CSR credentials come in.
“Ultimately, young people need to be empowered to understand how they can get the most from the internet,” she says.
Sky works closely with NGOs such as Childnet International, which tasks itself with educating young people about online safety, and it has built the Sky Skills Studio, based in the firm’s main studios in Osterley, west London, specifically to cater to children and young people.
“Up to 60 kids a day come in,” says Vega, “to have a tour of the studios to understand how TV is made and then go straight into the studio and write, shoot and edit their own short reports.”
The reports are linked to core curriculum subjects, including maths, english, sports and PCHE (Personal, Citizenship, social, Health and Economic education), and are chosen by teachers via the Sky Skills Studio website.
“The studio has been open a year and the most popular topic chosen by teachers has been social media and child safety,” says Vega.
“After the kids make the film, they are given it on a USB stick and they can go back to their school and share it, which they often do in assembly.”
This kind of peer-to-peer articulation around the issue of child safety is more effective than them being told something by adults, she says.
BSkyB is also involved with Safer Internet Day, which is organised by The UK Safer Internet Centre (co-funded by the European Commission and co-ordinated by Childnet, the South West Grid for Learning and the IWF) and which takes place each year in early February.
Childnet is the hub for online child safety in the UK but it draws a lot of corporate support together, says Vega, including BSkyB and other providers such as BT and Virgin.
The NGO’s mission statement is to make the internet a safe place via education and empowerment, says Lucinda Hasell, Childnet’s policy and communications director, and it works closely with all the UK ISPs to co-ordinate its activities.
The organisation goes into schools at the rate of least four a week, speaking to children aged 3-18, alongside their parents, teachers and carers, about risks and how to stay safe online.
It helps parents and teachers to understand what children are doing online and what services they are accessing, but also crucially informs them about the tools that many of those services provide, such as the fact that you can make reports on Club Penguin (the trainer for massively multiplayer online role-playing game Club Penguin) for the younger audience and also on Facebook.
Childnet also has a corporate side, working with companies of all sizes to hold ‘lunch and learn’ sessions for firms to think about internet safety and about the fact that their employees are also parents.
Following the Bailey review on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, there has been much debate about the Active Choice issue, says Hasell. But whether or not the default-on setting that the government wants (and which is supported by Labour but not by the Liberal Democrats) becomes law, Childnet’s aim right now is that: “If the tools exist now, we want parents to have that choice now.”
When it comes to companies that are handling the issue of online safety badly, as has been recently seen with Twitter’s lack of response after death threats were made against prominent feminists using the service, Sky’s Vega believes this may be due to a gap between action and awareness seen in the US but not in the UK. “I don’t think you see those gaps with UK companies,” she says.
“Internet safety isn’t a legal requirement in the UK, but it is an expectation from our customers. I think that the action from industry on this issue has gone further as a sector-led body than it would have if it was a legal requirement. If you’re working for an ISP you really need to understand these issues.
“And the wider impact of the internet – if you can get staff thinking about that more strategically you’ll get more buy-in. There needs to be an understanding built by ISPs that this could make or break their business – it’s an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and to reap reputation from it.”
 Parents, Schools and the Digital Divide. Developing Online Safety Knowledge in Partnership with Parents and Schools. Professor Andy Phippen, Professor of Social Responsibility in IT, Plymouth University.
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