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A Very Poor Report

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All of the UK's mobile phone networks run a system of filtering to keep web-based adult content away from children who access the internet via a mobile phone handset. The policy was first introduced voluntarily back in January 2004. It is still in place as a voluntary measure. The filter is applied by default to the great majority of mobile phone accounts. It's often referred to as an "adult bar" although it is not just about pornography and never has been.

Last this week the Open Rights Group and the LSE Media Policy Group (LSE ORG) published a report with a pointedly dramatic and large title: "Mobile censorship: What's happening and what we can do about it." The report discussed, or rather it traduced, the adult bar.

That said, much of the smaller print is fine. The report acknowledges that filtering software can play a legitimate part in helping to protect children online. The authors' main gripes seem to be about the quality of the software i.e. how well it performs its stated tasks, and about when and how it gets turned on. All perfectly reasonable points.

The LSE ORG document also contains a number of genuinely new and original findings. It shines a light on and makes trenchant observations about the lack of transparency and consistency in relation to the way the adult bar has been implemented on some networks. The networks should address these as soon as they possibly can.

Thus, while I strongly endorse some of the LSE ORG report's comments and detailed recommendations, I regret to say its principal allegation, that the mobile phone networks are involved in censorship, is demonstrably false. This alone fatally undermines its credibility but, misery upon misery, on top of that it contains several manifest and not insignificant weaknesses and errors.

Ours not to reason why?

The report makes no mention of the history behind the mobile phone companies' decision to introduce the adult bar back in 2004. It fails to discuss why the fixed line ISPs did not follow suit. Perhaps even more remarkably the report fails to make clear or define what it means when it refers to "censorship". This is no small failing in a document that uses such a highly charged, loaded, attention-grabbing word in its masthead.

What the mobile phone companies do

The adult bar is not an iron curtain. It's more a silken veil on a well lubricated draw string. Anyone can get access to anything and everything. They merely have to express a wish to do so and prove they are over 18. This is common practice in many other areas of British life and has been for countless years. Nobody is saying that any individual web site or any content should be suppressed or redacted or that anything is immoral, obscene or a threat to national security. All that is being said is that kids should not have ready access to it.

At worst it could be a minor irritation

At worst, or at best depending on where you are coming from, all you can say is that the mobile phone networks have put a few bumps in the road, some chicanes or traffic control measures in place. These are no more than a minor inconvenience or an irritation. Once you have negotiated them you are out on the highway with no restrictions of any kind.

Once in your life

Your adult/not adult status is linked to the SIM card, not the handset. And the processes of proving you are over 18 can usually be done online, in real time, in less than 30 seconds, or maybe a tad more if the network is running slow that day.Thus unless you change your telephone number or your mobile phone network you will never have to go through this process again. Ever. It might have been helpful if this had been explained by LSE ORG. It wasn't.

In many other parts of our lives, in order to gain access to particular types of content, places or services, we accept much more onerous encumbrances than those imposed by the mobile networks. Apart from a few grumpy old curmudgeons these hurdles are generally accepted as part of a series of socially negotiated policies designed to shield children from exposure to potentially harmful experiences. I'm thinking about the rules surrounding entrance to licensed premises, to cinemas showing 18 rated movies, TV watersheds, access to sex shops, gaining a driving licence, opening a bank account and the like.

To portray what the mobile companies are doing as being in any way sinister or illiberal is tendentious and completely unwarranted. It smacks of propaganda which is ideologically rooted in another era, when the internet was something very different from what it is now.

The Ofcom Review? The BlackBerry Affair? The IWF?

Bizarrely the LSE ORG report makes no reference to the 2008 Ofcom Review of the mobile networks' operation of the adult bar. The Ofcom review runs completely counter to the impression given elsewhere in the LSE ORG document that the whole policy is being run by a bunch of out of control cowboys who do what they like with no accountability to anyone or any thing.

Equally the lessons learned from the "BlackBerry Affair" might have been worth a sentence or two, and ditto in relation to the system for blocking illegal content that is in place linked to the IWF's list. Nobody can ask for or get the IWF list lifted because it contains only illegal content. Neither is this censorship because the items on the list are illegal. You cannot "censor" items that should not be published in the first place.

None of the three topics featured in this section's heading were mentioned in the LSE ORG report. Why?

No real evidence produced

Apart from missing things out the LSE ORG report gets things wrong. It says, for example, the adult bar is only applied to pay-as-you-go-phone. Nope. It refers to a case in Australia where innocent web sites were said to have ended up on a blocking list by mistake and this may have cost the owners several business opportunities. Nope. At the time the sites were investigated they contained child pornography.

"Over 60" examples were offered of UK based web sites that were blocked by mobile operators. I cannot argue with that and even if there was only one example of an improperly classified site being filtered it would be wrong. But the LSE ORG report might have troubled to set 60 into some sort of context e.g. at the time of their investigation in a typical month around 1 billion visits were made to web sites from UK based mobile phones. 60 mistakes in a billion hits do not substantiate a charge of censorship.

Pyongyang is put in charge of internet policy

One of the more ludicrous suggestions in the report is that by using filtering here in the UK we somehow provide succour and comfort to tyrants overseas. If I really thought that Kim Jong-un or any of his illustrious predecessors gave a flying banana about what the UK's mobile phone networks do to protect children...It is too ridiculous for words.

We cannot hand over control of policy on the internet to the most barbaric, reactionary, anti-democratic governments on Earth. Neither can we give them a veto over how we best protect our children. Either you agree with this line of policy or you don't. It stands or falls on its own merits, or lack of them.

An even bigger target

It is pretty clear why LSE ORG have jumped into this debate at this particular moment. We get to it around page 29 of the report where Jeremy Hunt's speech to the Royal Television Society in September 2011 is quoted. Here he promised, inter alia, to bring forward new measures to protect children online. The authors are fearful that, in the wake of the report of Claire Perry MP, the current discussions on "Active Choice" will move towards default filtering on fixed line services, perhaps installed at network level, thereby copying what the the mobile networks do.

I can see there is little point publishing a paper designed to influence policy twelve months after all the decisions about the policy have been taken. But if you are going to step into a fight of that kind you need to make sure you've done your homework and your thinking a little more thoroughly than LSE ORG appear to have managed on this occasion.

Do we need a new institution?

There are some issues which are so overlaid with cultural, political, historic, legal, religious, technical and economic considerations that I sometimes wonder if any amount of research is ever going to convince anyone to shift from their historic positions.

Perhaps all we can ever do is go with our best estimates and judgements based on the evidence we have available to us at the time and what we think is right or what we think will do the least amount of harm to "non-believers" consistent with achieving the underlying social policy goal? But who decides how this balance is to be struck?

In a recent blog Professor Sonia Livingstone, also of the LSE, suggested maybe what we need is a trusted independent body of some kind to step up e.g. an Ofcom, a BBFC or similar, a body that is used to dealing with complexity and weighing competing claims against each other, reaching a considered view with which (almost) everyone is prepared to live. Leaving it to the rough house of headline writers, financially motivated calculations in company Board Rooms, religious leaders or free speech activists, yes even children's rights campaigners, is no way to run a brewery much less decide a key facet of public policy.

I buy that. Even though I completely reject the idea that what the mobile companies are doing could in any way properly be called censorship I do accept that people can have reasonable apprehensions about the possibility of computer based systems getting things wrong, whether by accident or otherwise.

Livingstone's idea therefore has a great deal of merit. Such an organization would need to draw on people from all of the stakeholder communities, of whom the free speech and civil liberties lobby is undoubtedly a major one.

The precautionary principle

Even so, if there was any hard evidence at all that the mobile phone companies' policy might actually do some harm to children, that would be a serious point against the current practice. No such evidence exists or has ever been produced.

Other objections to the policy of default filtering are often couched in terms of people's worries about how the policy impacts on adults' rights and sensibilities, or about how it could be deliberately manipulated for unstated, dark reasons. Glib, and in the Australian case inaccurate, or unsubstantiated references are sometimes made about such policies' potential to interfere with economic activity or innovation.

Of course these latter points are not unimportant considerations but, even if they were was any evidence to support them, which there isn't, civilized society typically always gives the benefit of the doubt to its young.

In other words unless adults' rights or sensibilities were to an appreciable degree being injured or compromised, or unless it could be shown that economic activity or innovation were being materially harmed or reduced, I'm afraid in my book they cannot trump a child's right to protection. A 30 second wait once in a lifetime is not a big ask.