Some websites should be unblockable

22 December 2013

Why would a parent block their children’s access to the ChildLine website? Why would they stop them visiting the Samaritans? It could be because they’re an abusive, controlling parent who wants to isolate their child from advice and support. But more likely it’s because they’re a responsible parent trying to do the right thing – keeping their children safe online by using internet filters.

When the government decided to bypass Parliament and rush through a web blocking deal with the UK’s main ISPs, technical experts such as the Open Rights Group warned that many important sites would be caught in the crossfire. This “overblocking” would stop children accessing information and support about health and education, sexual orientation and gender identity – topics that many children would be unwilling or unable to discuss with their parents.

So it’s no surprise that we discover that mobile operator O2 has blocked a huge range of sites through its “Parental Controls” settings. If their parents have chosen this option, children using O2 phones will be unable to access almost all of the internet: police websites, the NHS, ChildLine, the NSPCC, the Samaritans, many schools and even the main government website, GOV.UK. While many of these sites aren’t specifically aimed at children, it’s hard to see how they could do any harm. And sites like ChildLine and the Samaritans are there precisely to provide support to children in crisis who may have nowhere else to turn. ChildLine even has a page showing children how to cover their tracks and keep their visits to the website private. Yet O2’s parental controls let children visit McDonalds' website. Children can have burgers marketed to them but they can’t get help if they’re being neglected or abused.

Recently BT launched its parental controls for home broadband connections. Unlike O2, BT doesn’t have a URL checker so it’s impossible to see what’s being blocked unless you’re a BT customer and have got the blocker enabled. The government says it wants to give parents choice, but without access to specific information about what’s blocked and what isn’t, there’s no way that parents can make an informed choice. Once your filters are enabled you won’t be able to see those sites anyway, so parents and children literally won’t know what they’re missing.

BT’s parental controls gives parents the option to:

‘Always block’ sites that you feel are inappropriate.

What could be more of a gift to an abusive parent or controlling partner than having the ability to block websites like ChildLine or domestic violence support groups? By giving the bill payer the choice to block any website but not limiting what they can do with that choice, BT is putting a deadly weapon in those adults' hands.

By rushing through a behind-closed-doors deal with the ISPs rather than legislating on web blocking, the government has created a dog’s breakfast of opaque, confusing and often harmful options for parents and their children. What would Claire Perry – David Cameron’s adviser on “the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood” and a strong advocate for the current web blocking system – say to the parents of a gay teenager who killed themselves because they couldn’t get advice and support online? What would she say to a ten-year-old who couldn’t report an abusive parent because that parent had blocked their access to ChildLine’s website?

The government needs to stop demanding that the ISPs roll out web blocking until these complex issues have been given serious consideration and effective solutions have been put in place. As with search engine keyword and results blocking, it’s most likely that a new law will be needed to ensure that access to information for those who need it is preserved, that parents have all the information they need to make genuine choices about whether, and how, to use web blocking to protect their children online. Accountability and liability for ISPs and parents needs to be made fair and clear. No-one should be forced to make a choice whether they want filters in their household, let alone be “nudged” into it by setting the default for that choice to “on”.

Any sophisticated legal framework for web blocking needs to recognise that the principle that “the bill payer decides” isn’t sufficient for what children can do online. As with health, education and other welfare issues, parents have significant rights and responsibilities in how they raise their children but their rights are ultimately limited. No parent can decide that their child shouldn’t get an education, or choose an education so limited that it isn’t worthy of the name. Parents are rightly limited in how they can punish their children and in what they can require or not require their children to eat. Parents can make healthcare decisions for their children but not choose that their children should be denied necessary treatment. Likewise, we need to recognise that children should have limited rights to choose for themselves which websites they visit online. No parent should have the right to stop their child visiting ChildLine or the Samaritans' websites, and no ISP or software vendor should have the right to give a parent a tool to enforce that choice. Every web blocker should come with a list of sites so essential to the safety and wellbeing of children that they’re literally unblockable, regardless of their parents' views or intentions. Until then, the UK ISPs' web blocking systems will continue to put children at risk as they do today.

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