A coalition of major U.K. Internet providers said Tuesday that it would begin forcing customers to choose whether to have access to pornography and other potentially unsavory websites, rather than simply offering consumers the option to block them.
The family advocate behind the move says it will push families to think about what their children are looking at online, but civil libertarians worry that adults could be caught up in — and potentially get used to — online censorship.
"The choice needs to be framed as a choice about parental controls," said Jim Killock, the chief executive of Britain's Open Rights Group. "Adults should not be being asked to make choices about content they may wish to view, or may need to view in the future."
Like their counterparts elsewhere, British Internet providers have long offered customers the option of installing parental blocks to protect children from objectionable content — including not just pornography and gambling but also websites that promote eating disorders, self-harm or suicide.
But a government-ordered review into the sexualization of children published in June recommended that parents be forced to make an explicit choice whether to include the blocks. The review's author, family advocate Reg Bailey, told BBC television that the issue with existing parental controls is that "the default position is that they're turned off."
He said forcing the choice is a way to confront parents with the question: "Do you actually want to access adult material on the Internet through this device?"
"That persuades parents in many ways to have a conversation with children and young people about whether that's a good thing or a bad thing," he told the broadcaster. "It's a much more active process than it is at present."
Killock said he didn't have a problem with stronger parental controls — so long as they remained just that. The danger, he said, was that forcing adult consumers to explicitly state whether they wanted to access pornography or other material might intimidate some into agreeing to a form of censorship.
"If you're faced with the question: 'Do you wish to switch on adult content, yes or no?' then people will switch it off because they might think: 'Oh my partner won't approve,'" he said. "It's inappropriate to get adults to start living in a censored world."
The four providers who've pledged to implement the new measure are the BT Group PLC, British Sky Broadcasting Ltd., Virgin Media and the TalkTalk Telecom Group PLC. None of the providers gave a precise timeline for when the measure would be put into place.
Bailey Review: http://ow.ly/6TzVS
Raphael G. Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael