Portland Quarterly

Active choice: Will number 10 opt-in?

Claire Perry MP published her report on child protection on the internet this morning. It is the culmination of a bit of a one-woman crusade, but the cross-party backing for the report demonstrates the level of concern in Parliament about the issue.

The report calls on technology companies, particularly ISPs, to take measures to ensure children do not have access to inappropriate material like pornography or violent content online.

The headline measure she proposes is ‘active choice’ on all internet accounts – whereby consumer will have to wilfully declare they want access to all content online. There are also recommendations to improve parental controls and age verification.

The report puts the technology sector in a difficult position. No one wants children accessing potentially distressing content, but many in the sector are concerned any restrictions will have a chilling effect on the internet, with legitimate content like art or news blocked under the same banner as inappropriate content. There are also concerns about the precedent of Government intervention.

Many technology companies have worked hard to develop filters and other tools to help parents manage what content their children can access. The shift of responsibility for this management from the parent to industry doesn’t sit comfortably with everyone.

It also puts the Government in a tough spot. Number 10 is chasing the women’s and family vote – a raft of safer internet measures would certainly help this goal. They are also struggling with an unruly group of backbench MPs. Again, you’d think the Tory faithful would love some movement in this area.

But the Government is keen to support the technology industry in the UK and knows the importance of keeping the internet as free and open as possible.

How will it play out? The Coalition won’t be rushing into any decisions – any major moves will be absorbed into the forthcoming Communications Bill Green Paper. But if nothing else, Claire Perry has fired the starting gun on a potentially awkward debate for Government and industry.

Nick Carter is a Senior Account Manager in Portland’s Public Affairs practice, focusing on technology policy.

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