Comment: We need to better protect children from internet porn

Claire Perry is the Conservative MP for Devizes
Claire Perry is the Conservative MP for Devizes

Regulation of internet access to pornography has been left up to parents who are often one step behind their children. It is time treat the internet the same way as all other media.

By Claire Perry MP

The internet is a new phenomenon that has changed our lives. Since its inception there has been a massive growth in the online world. In the UK, over 19 million households, or 73 percent of the total have access to the internet. Children with their ability to be early adopters of new technologies are particularly heavy users of the internet with 99% of 12-15 year olds, 93% of 8-11 year olds and 75% of 5-7 year olds using the Internet regularly.

Many access in an unsupervised way, with 31 per cent of 12-15 year olds having internet access in their bedrooms and many are using this access to either knowingly or accidentally access pornography. Pornography is one of the most widely available forms of content on the internet representing 12 percent of the estimated 250 million global websites and studies have suggested that one in three British children aged ten have viewed internet pornography while four in every five children aged 14 to 16 admitted to regularly accessing explicit photographs and footage.

So what do we do about it? The current way of controlling access to pornographic material on the internet is via safety settings and filtering software, installed and maintained by users. It is the case that through technological ignorance, time pressure, inertia, or a myriad of other reasons, this filtering solution is not working. Even among parents who are internet users, only 15 per cent say that they know how to install a filter and it is unfortunately also case that our children know better than us how to circumvent the filters.

There are two key issues that I would like to raise with this current unsatisfactory situation. The first is that access to pornography has a profound and negative effect on our children. Against a drip feed of sexualisation that promotes pole dancing as healthy exercise and high heels for baby girls, the availability of soft and hardcore pornography in our homes is damaging our children. I attended the Safer media conference and heard all the compelling evidence for this damage - study after study demonstrating that watching internet pornography contributes to seeing women as sex objects and increases sexual risk taking.

The second problem in the current model of internet provision is the presumption that it is entirely the consumer's responsibility to safeguard their family from harmful imagery. I am a fervent supporter of personal responsibility and have an innate dislike of Big Brother regulation but in contrast to the Internet, other content delivery in this country is regulated by government or has a successful self regulation model.

Our TV viewing is restricted by sensible Ofcom guidelines including Section 1 that says that material equivalent to the British Board of Film Classification R18 rating must not be broadcast at any time other than between 2200 and 0530 on premium subscription services and on pay per view/night services which operate with mandatory restricted access. Our cinema screens are subject to British Film Board classifications. Our High Street hoardings and general advertising is regulated by Advertising Standards Agency which has teeth and Government guidelines inform newsagent displays of lad and porn mags.

The mobile phone industry, increasingly used to access the Internet has introduced a reasonably successful self regulation model that relies on an Adult Verification check to restrict access to inappropriate material.

So why, should internet content be any different? Why is the onus on parents, teachers and carers to act as web guides and policemen? Where is the industry responsibility?

There are three objections usually raised to the sort of change I am proposing. The first is that any restriction on access to Internet Pornography is an Infringement of free speech. I am no Mary Whitehouse however it is my view that the nature of the internet has led to a proliferation of imagery and discussion of sexual practises that to me - as someone who considers themself to be quite liberated is mindboggling in awfulness. However, I am not even proposing to reduce or restrict inappropriate content for adults accessing the Internet, only to make it harder for our children to access it.

The second objection is that the sort of change I am proposing would be too costly or too difficult to implement. I believe this is a red herring. While the content of the internet is indeed generated on millions of international websites, access to the internet is concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies. The Digital Economy Act said that there are 450 fixed ISPs in the UK market but that the top six including BT, Virgin, Talk Talk BskyB, Orange and O2 have more than 90% market share and that combined revenues from this business are over £3 billion a year. Additionally Ofcom already provides workable definitions of adult content, and the blocking technology is of course already available in distributed form. Indeed one provider Talk Talk is planning to provide a rating system for Broadband in the New Year with an opt-in system of ratings with options of U, 14, 18 or unclassified.

The third objection made to this proposal is that Children will just lie about their ages and access the information anyway. But the last government, quite sensibly in my view, introduced workable age-verification restrictions on online gambling sites in 2005 that search financial and electoral databases to ensure users are old enough to enter.

I believe that time has come to stop ducking and diving on an issue that is of enormous concern to parents, teachers and carers across the country. We are ridiculed for raising it, barraged with information as to why the internet should be treated differently, bamboozled with the problem of international cooperation and told that it is no-ones responsilbity but our own.

I beg to differ and believe it is time, in my view for Britain to take a lead on this matter and for the UK government - with its commitment to family-friendly policies - to act. The arguments for passive acceptance and self regulation are past their sell-by date. It is time to regulate the provision of internet services in this country, implement an age verifying opt-in system and switch the default setting for internet pornography in our homes to OFF.