Privacy: Pornography – should we opt-in to opting out?

The suggestion by the cross-party ‘Independent Parliamentary Enquiry into Online Child Protection’ (the ‘Enquiry’) that Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) be obliged to implement an ‘Opt-Out’ filter for adult material has been greeted enthusiastically by several news outlets; but would implementing such a proposal really do any good?

In essence, the Enquiry’s proposal is that ISPs ought automatically to block access to ‘adult’ content for all users, unless individual users specifically indicate that they wish to retain access to such content when they sign up for internet access (i.e. users have to ‘opt-out’ of having their content filtered).

Gradual erosion of online privacy?

Unsurprisingly, the proposal has raised privacy and freedom of speech objections from several parties. These arguments have tended to come in two flavours; the first states that an ‘opt-out’ proposal is unduly intrusive and serves only to force individuals to reveal unnecessary personal details about themselves to their ISPs. If there is a filter, it ought not be automatic and should instead be rolled out on an ‘opt-in’ basis, with users only signing up if they feel that they require it.

The second argument is more extreme; stating that the censoring of internet content is something that is best left to individuals to implement on their own terms (i.e. by using a program such as Net Nanny or CYBERsitter). Any kind of ‘opt-in/out’ system forces individuals to register their internet browsing preferences with their ISP, eroding their personal privacy and turning ISPs into unelected internet ‘gatekeepers’.

It’s easy to sympathise with the above arguments. Certainly, from a legal perspective it’s difficult to reconcile comfortably an ‘opt-out’ filter with the European Convention on Human Rights’ Article 10 “Freedom to … receive and impart information and ideas without interference…”. However, it can’t be denied that the idea of giving parents the option of setting a content-filter which lies beyond the interference of (increasingly technologically savvy) minors is an appealing one.

A new problem with an old solution?

Interestingly, several UK mobile telephone networks already apply content filters to their users’ handsets, a fact which has raised very little public outcry. Unlike an On/Off filter applied to a child’s mobile handset, a filter applied to an internet connection that services an entire household (possibly containing several different computers) would be a blunt instrument that lacked the necessary sophistication to make it truly effective.

For example, what good would such a filter be to a parent who wished to safeguard his/her children from accessing the seedy side of the internet, but wished to retain the ability to occasionally access such material him/herself?

Further, it’s only fair to ask how effective a filter of specific websites can be, when young teenagers have already proven themselves startlingly adept at using new technology and (perfectly legitimate) social networks to create and distribute their own distinctly ‘adult’ material in the form of explicit home-videos, ‘sexts’ and ‘slash’ fiction (amateur pornographic literature). While an ISP level filter might well stop one household’s children from accessing pornographic websites, it wouldn’t stop them from looking at exactly the same material downloaded by a friend and then shared via Facebook or Tumblr.

The reality is that while an ISP filtering regime may initially appear attractive (especially when offered as a simple ‘set and forget’ package) it’s far from being a panacea solution to regulating children’s behaviour online. A simplistic Opt-In or Opt-Out regime fails to take account of the complex patterns of household computer use and provides no protection against inappropriate material shared via legitimate social networks.