O2 unblocks ChildLine - but web censorship is still broken

23 December 2013

O2 has just announced that it will be unblocking access to the ChildLine website for children using the internet under its parental controls service. For the first time since the service launched in 2008, neglected and abused children will be able to access the confidential support they need without their parents and their mobile network blocking them in the name of safety.

But despite this important step in the right direction, O2’s parental controls remain fundamentally broken.

Children still don’t have access to most of the internet, including websites for the police, the government and in most cases, their local councils and schools. Other support charities such as the Samaritans will continue to be blocked.

Parents still can’t make informed choices about how best to keep their children safe – online and offline. While O2 provides access to a link checker so parents can see if specific sites are available, the company still refuses to publish its full list of available websites for children whose parents have activated the parental controls service. Parents can’t be expected to type in hundreds of web addresses to get a true picture of what they’re signing up for.

And piecemeal decisions like today’s unblocking of ChildLine still don’t make up for the fact that O2’s parental controls have been set up without sufficient care for the welfare of the children they’re designed to protect. That this system has been in place for so long in this state shows the risks being taken by the main home broadband services such as BT and TalkTalk in rolling out their web blockers so quickly.

As I argued yesterday, all ISPs and mobile networks providing web blocking should be legally obliged to ensure that a defined list of essential welfare sites are unblockable – even if the networks and parents want them blocked. No child should be left stranded online because their internet provider made poor blocking choices, or worse, because an abusive adult decided to intentionally block websites that could help an isolated and vulnerable child.

We don’t know whether O2’s block on ChildLine’s website for the past five years has left a child in need without support. Let’s hope not. But parents should be aware that unless their ISP is prepared to be absolutely specific about what its filters do and don’t block, the safest option will be to turn the filters off. It’s time for the government to stop pushing ISPs to roll out web blocking that’s turned on by default so more children aren’t put further at risk.