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Can David Cameron's plan to block porn work?

Experts are divided over David Cameron's plans to force Internet Service Providers to automatically filter out adult content.

Experts are divided over David Cameron's plans to force Internet Service Providers to automatically filter out adult content.

The Prime Minister today announced the Government has reached agreement with UK ISPs to turn filters on by default, blocking both web pages with illegal content, but also legal pornographic material, and stopping certain terms appearing in searches.

However, the network level block - designed to protect all devices within a home connected to the broadband router - can be removed by an adult subscriber.

In a speech this morning Mr Cameron said: "This is, quite simply, about how we protect our children and their innocence."

But experts say once an adult opts out from the scheme, the onus would then be up to the parent or carer within the home to safeguard any children or teenagers living there and this gives them cause for alarm.

Andy Phippen, Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at Plymouth University, said: "Aside from preventing younger children accidentally stumbling across images on a search, I'm not sure what it will achieve.

"It certainly won't prevent the determined teenager from accessing and distributing pornography, there are many other channels to this than the family laptop.

"And filters are such a blunt tool, how many will switch them off due to frustrations with too many other non-explicit websites being blocked?"

Professor Phippen believes some of the Government's proposals are right, such as doing more to combat illegal images of child abuse on the web. But he says it is a myth that internet companies have not been doing anything to prevent it already.

He adds: "The issue of illegal images is clear - people shouldn't be accessing and distributing and it's good to see more powers to the organisations that deal with this sort of thing but internet companies are being targeted as not doing anything when they have funded the Internet Watch Foundation for years, something the Government doesn't do." 

A spokesman for TalkTalk, which already offers a similar  top level filtering choice to new and existing customers said: "We will be pre-ticking HomeSafe as on for new customers from the end of the year. One in three customers are choosing to turn on parental controls when offered the chance."

Many experts, however, point to recent cuts in funding for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, a body tasked by the previous Government with rooting out those involved in online child abuse and pedophilia.

Its former head Jim Gamble says: "The No1 priority should be to locate and rescue the children trapped in these images, then to find those who represent a risk to children and to create a meaningful deterrent by arrest."

Mr Gamble believes today's announcement is upside down. He explained: "I am not sure how search terms will be managed effectively. In my experience neutral terms can be used that hide the true nature of the content from all but the initiated.

"I receive automated Google Alerts each day on topics such as domestic violence and child abuse, rape and grooming. And for as long as I've been doing this type of work, I've never stumbled across a hardcore child abuse image.

"Listening to it today I wondered just how many people advised on it? I suspect it was driven by politics and political advisors rather than child protection experts. That said the issues is on the table, people are talking about it and the involvement of  Joanna Shields [CEO of Tech City Investment Organisation] and the transatlantic alliance is a welcome move that has real potential."

And he believes there should be more constructive relationships with ISPs too, in order to use their data crunching tools to speed up the way information is gathered about who the perpetrators are and how they can be stopped.

He added: "Much of the opportunity has been marginalised by an announcement focused on doing what costs less. When they say we want people to stand up to this moral challenge, maybe they should look in the mirror."

A statement from the Internet Watch Foundation, which operates a helpline for people to report illegal child abuse images found online, welcomed the renewed focus.

It says: "We are particularly supportive of the formation of a new UK-US taskforce to maximise international co-operation fighting this content. Ultimately, the IWF’s vision is the elimination of online child sexual abuse content and any steps to do more to meet this vision is fantastic news for the UK, and the world."

However, many ISPs do already filter and block illegal websites or abusive material. A system called CleanFeed operated by BT produces a list of sites for subscribers to the list to block and the IWF also produces a separate keyword list of terms to be filtered out.

Mr Cameron's speech today also outlined safe public Wi-Fi that blocks access to pornography and criminalising possession of extreme images of simulated sexual violence and simulated rape.

There will also be proposals laid for legislation to make videos streamed online subject to the same laws as those sold in shops.

And the Government hopes new measures within the National Curriculum will give teachers the ability to provide better online safety education from September.

However, Professor Phippen said parents must be educated too. He explains: "Clearly children are now accessing extreme pornography at an early age and this is not healthy but trying to close down one route of access will not solve anything.

"Rather than pointing the finger at the internet industry and telling them to do something, how about developing more effective education policy around implementing school environments where children can discuss the issues around online safety, such as pornography, and feel they can ask for help without being judged?

"We have a society that would rather not talk about these issues. If we are relying on technology for this, we are always going to struggle. Young people have been getting around filters in schools for years, and I don't see how filters in the home will be any more effective than these."

A spokesman for the UK Safer Internet Centre did though welcome the move saying: "We are pleased the Prime Minister is making the clear distinction between the fight against online child sexual abuse content and efforts to prevent legal material being viewed by those who are underage. It is critical that these debates are kept separate.

"To us, education is key to empower young people to be responsible digital citizens and build and strengthen their resilience online."