A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its trousers on.
Thus spake Winston Churchill, Mark Twain and many others who used variants of it over the centuries. In the internet age we have this in spades. You can still be in the shower before emerging to discover that an unfavourable "fact" has been discovered, charges laid, the trial is over, a verdict delivered and your parole hearing is scheduled for next week.
We have just had a classic example of this although here I think something was simply lost in translation rather than it being the product of a deliberate falsehood.
Don't believe everything you read in newspapers, see on TV or online
Various stories appeared in the UK press over the weekend and on Monday which seemed to suggest that Britain was about to move to a position where legal pornography would be blocked by default by our major ISPs. This is incorrect.
Naturally that did not prevent some people proceeding to write very full denunciations, linked to mournful handwringing about the death of democracy and civilization as we know it in what was once a proud nation etc. etc. Why bother double-checking anything if your mind is made up? My email inbox was flooded with anxious enquiries. I felt an emergency blog was called for.
Legal pornography will NOT be blocked by default
Legal pornography is not and will not be blocked by default. Nothing is or will be blocked by default, other than child abuse web sites but that has been the case for years.
The stories that appeared in the press and were picked up on the internet centred on what the UK's "Big Four" ISPs are proposing to do or have done to make their service better and safer for children and families. The Big Four are BT, Talk Talk, Virgin and Sky who, between them, cover about 90% of the UK's domestic broadband market.
Talk Talk's system is already up and running. The other three's are in the pipeline. Their target for final implementation is October 2012.
The system Talk Talk has introduced and the others are planning to introduce will require all new customers to make an active choice about whether or not they want to use family safety software that is provided free of charge as part of the standard package. If the answer is in the affirmative they will be offered options about how they might deploy it. Or they can turn it down either altogether or in parts.
Each of the Big Four also has plans about how to reach out to their legacy customers i.e. the millions of people who are currently with them. Just doing it for new customers obviously is not enough. We will then have to face the issue of how to sweep up the smaller ISPs who cater for the 10% of the population who are not with the Big Four. In a country with 61 million inhabitants 10% represents a very large number of human beings. My guess is, as usual, most of the smaller ISPs will choose to do the same as, or in some cases maybe even more than, the Big Four but one or two of the ideologically driven companies will make a brave stand against......well, something or other.
You decide for yourself
Although precise details of the three's ideas have not yet been published, it seems clear that, as with Talk Talk, among other things the family safety software they will offer will include a web filtering component. The web is where most of the porn is. As already indicated, you will be able to say "yes" or "no" to it or indeed to the whole shooting match. Nobody will have to declare their view on or interest in pornography specifically. If a person says they do not want to use the software in any way, shape or form, then that's it. It's over. The software falls away and they have full, unrestricted access to the internet. This is how filtering has worked since the mid-1990s. Anyone could have a million reasons why they don't want to use filters. It does not necessarily tell you anything about their attitude to pornography, no more than it does towards gambling, alcohol or the early work of Immanuel Kant.
The filters will be highly configurable or customizable, but if a person opts for the defaults within the filters porn, violence, gambling, tobacco and alcohol related web sites will be excluded without anyone having to do any fiddling about. I believe Talk Talk has eight specific categories of content which a parent can choose to block. This is essentially the same as we have had in the mobile phone space for several years. Without wishing to sound too Jesuitical this is a long way from saying that pornography is blocked by default and that you have to jump through hoops to get it.
After the family safety software has been installed, if a user changes their mind, or as their children get older or need access to specific areas of the internet that are normally unavailable, it will be as easy to undo or alter the original or previous settings as it was to put them there in the first place.
Making it simpler for parents and carers
The whole idea behind this initiative is to make it simpler for parents and carers to do what many of them repeatedly said they wanted to do: protect their children from certain types of online content or services. As we have seen it has been possible to do this for over 15 years using a range of filtering products but there was a constant stream of complaints about how hard many people found it was to implement the different offerings.
And just so we are clear: no one at any stage suggested that any of these technical tools were substitutes for close parental engagement with their children's use of the internet much less were they a replacement for the strongest weapon in every child's armoury - education and their own awareness of the issues.
The Big Four have also announced that they intend to allow their efforts in this area to be reviewed independently by a third party. The who and the how are yet to be decided but once they are we will see exactly how parents respond. Hard facts. Solid evidence. I am sure it will be very revealing and may shed light on some other areas.
In Downing Street
All this and much besides was discussed at yesterday's meeting with the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in Downing Street. We were there to talk about the first six months' of activity in implementing the recommendations of the Bailey Review. The use of sexual images or themes in advertising, the role of retailers in selling sexualized clothing and other age inappropriate products to youngsters and commercialization generally were big topics of conversation, as was the newly created multi-regulator portal "Parentport". The practice of companies' using youngsters as "brand ambassadors" was also examined with Professor Agnes Nairn focusing her laser-like intellect on the subject.
Lots of big hitters were in the Cabinet Room. An impressive gathering. A meeting with the Prime Minister definitely focuses the mind. There were many warm words and congratulations being handed out but equally it was clear that much still needs to be done. I was very pleased we found time for a substantial discussion about the challenges posed by the ability of smartphones to connect to the internet using their wifi capability, bypassing all of the (expensive) controls which the mobile phone networks had installed.
Bigging it up for Vodafone
In that context Vodafone got a special mention because of the new and powerful app which they commissioned to control seemingly every function on modern smartphones, including wifi but also extending to cameras and Bluetooth as well as other features. We need to hear how it is going to be promoted to Vodafone customers but it looks great on paper. By that I mean the screenshots looked great.
The first iteration will be as an Android app so I guess it will work on other networks' handsets as well. Vodafone said they were going to commission a version for the Blackberry and Symbian phones so ditto. Apple has something similar. That will leave only Microsoft to sort something out for their Windows mobile platform. I would be astonished if it isn't nearing completion even as you read this.
The man's got passion
Our new Prime Minister clearly has a passion for this subject. Not surprising. He is the father of three young children. Mr Cameron is committed to the idea of self-regulation. He was very clear about that but it was also fairly obvious, not that he is impatient, but that he is very keen to see things happen fast. The British Prime Minister will be running with this ball for some time to come.