No silver bullet for online safety

IRISH Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide infrastructure that allows users to access the unimaginably vast and diverse content that companies and people anywhere in the world choose to make available on the internet.

As commercial companies, it is not appropriate that ISPs should decide what content the citizens of Ireland should or should not be able to find on the internet. ISPs are obliged under European law to freely provide access to all content unless it is illegal. Adult pornography, in general, is not illegal in this country. Those choosing to view this material are doing so by going to these sites of their own volition. ISPs are not like TV stations. We do not decide what content will be presented to our customers.

If the Government, reflecting the democratic wishes of the citizens, decide that certain legal content should not be accessible by default on the internet, then the decisions on which specific websites are “banned by default” must be made by a publicly appointed body which is governed by law, has transparent processes, and is answerable to the Government. It is inappropriate that this responsibility should be divested to private commercial companies whose business and skills are to provide internet infrastructure.

Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland recognises the necessity of protecting children from age-inappropriate content such as adult pornography. This is best done at device level, where parental responsibility and choice of content can be exercised.

The simplistic default blocking approach pushed by highly vocal lobbyists in Britain, which has now involved various pledges being made by David Cameron the British prime minister, is not being taken up in other EU countries. While Mr Cameron’s motivations may be sincere, there is undoubtedly a large lobby happy to play politics with the serious matter of safer internet for children, despite the fact there is no evidence to support the effectiveness of blocking in reducing access to explicit content.

However, the issue of access to age-inappropriate content is not a new matter and it is important not to have “knee-jerk” reactions which do not solve the perceived problem and have major implications for the public’s right to access information.

Notably, the European Commission has come out strongly against blocking of the internet, seeing it as an important platform for freedom of speech.

ISPAI holds that any action to control or regulate adult pornography must be directed at the so called “adult content” industry. That is, the businesses that produce and publish their sexually explicit material on websites, or operate user-generated content sites, where such material is openly accessible. This will likely necessitate regulation or legislation and co-ordination at EU level.

ISPAI members are committed to safer internet policies for children and have for many years provided various parental control solutions that may be installed at device level to aid parents and guardians in the protection and care of their children’s online activity.

We acknowledge that digital literacy is key to our future development as a knowledge economy and our members will continue to provide solutions that make the pursuit of this goal ever safer for our children.

However, any technical solution is limited in its effectiveness by how much the parents engage with its implementation and how they oversee it.

No technical solution can ever make the claim to be a ‘silver bullet’ for child online safety nor should parents ever be lulled into a false sense of security by developments that claim to ‘block’ inappropriate content with full success. ISPAI is very willing to work with the Government to identify more effective and appropriate solutions to address the issue.

* Paul Durrant is CEO of the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland

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