Row over United Kingdom internet safety filters

I've written before on the dialogue of the deaf between politicians and the internet industry over child internet safety - and now the relationship seems to be getting even worse. A letter sent to the UK's four leading ISPs from the government has made them very cross indeed. So cross that someone in the industry has passed it to me - you can read it in full below.

The letter comes from the Department for Education but it sets out a list of demands from Downing Street, with the stated aim of allowing the prime minister to make an announcement shortly. The companies are asked, among other things, for a commitment to fund an "awareness campaign" for parents. They're not particularly happy about promising cash for what the letter concedes is an "unknown campaign" but it's the next item on the menu which is the source of most of their anger.

This asks them to change the language they are using to describe the net safety filters they will be offering to internet users. Instead of talking of "active choice +", they are urged to use the term default-on. The letter says this can be done "without changing what you're offering".

A person at one ISP told me the request was "staggering - asking us to market active choice as default-on is both misleading and potentially harmful".

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A little background on this issue might be helpful. For a long time, certain politicians and newspapers have been campaigning for default-on filters. They would like to see harmful and offensive - if legal - material blocked by the internet service providers unless customers choose to have the filters switched off.

"It sounds like a good idea until you think it through," said one industry source. "There are three reasons why it doesn't work. First it may be illegal under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers. Then there's the fact that no filter is perfect, and finally kids are smart enough to find their way around them."

A source at another company saw another reason why "default on" might be a bad idea: "It makes parents complacent - if you tell them the filter is switched on by default, they get a false sense of security. We want parents to make informed choices about the way their children use the internet."

And the companies point out that the man the government chose to examine this issue, Reg Bailey of the Mothers' Union, was also dubious about the use of default-on filters, wanting parents to be more active in understanding online dangers.

So the ISPs are instead offering something they call Active Choice, where customers are asked to make informed decisions about the level of filtering. Critics may say they are just quibbling about language, but the companies believe the precise wording is important - and they're angry at what they see as the government urging them to mislead their customers.

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UK Internet Safety