Protecting children from pornography

 
Child using a computer

Today's research from Nielsen for the online video regulator ATVOD confirms something not particularly surprising - that pornography on the web is very popular and is a huge business. But by showing that large numbers of children are getting unrestricted access to hardcore pornography, ATVOD is raising some difficult questions.

How worried should we be - and even if we are convinced this is harmful is there anything that can be done about it? And isn't it the job of parents, not regulators, to keep children safe online?

ATVOD has an interesting analysis of how the business model for pornography has changed, and how that has made it much more likely that children will stumble across it - or find it easier to seek out.

The regulator says that it used to be quite hard to find this material, especially without handing over credit card details. But then they took inspiration from the likes of YouTube and began to offer hours of video for nothing, making money from adverts, and getting users to "trade up" to premium services.

The result is that hardcore material is just one click away - the "tube" sites don't even post a warning site, so any child arriving on their homepages will immediately see explicit material.

Many parents will be deeply shocked by the numbers in the ATVOD report, and will doubtless cheer the regulator on as it asks the government for new powers to pursue sites that don't even try to keep children out. The problem is that just about every one of these sites is based abroad, mainly in North America.

ATVOD's idea is to follow the money - get credit and debit card companies to withdraw their facilities from the websites unless they show they are doing effective age checks. The payment firms say they will act if it is shown that the sites are breaking the law, but the regulator accepts that means new legislation.

One of the biggest operators of these pornography sites - including the one named by ATVOD as having attracted 112,000 underage visitors in December - is a business called MindGeek. It describes itself on its very respectable corporate website as "a global industry-leading information technology firm" with headquarters in Luxembourg - but on a blog it also trumpets the fact that is "the world's biggest porn site".

We contacted Mindgeek to seek a response to ATVOD's research, and its call for payment firms to stop dealing with porn firms which don't impose age restrictions. A spokeswoman in the firm's Montreal office provided a statement. She said the company did require adults to go through an age verification process in countries where that was required.

But the statement went on: "The entire issue of verifying age online is an on-going struggle with no easy solution. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that there is no simple answer when it comes to protecting children in a digital age."

As for blocking payments services, MindGeek claimed that would hurt its advertisers rather than its own operation - though that may hardly be a concern for the regulator.

The porn company maintains that the best approach is to help parents by promoting the use of internet filters. That's a view which may be more widely shared - the government has responded to ATVOD's report by trumpeting its action last year to make British ISPs provide family-friendly filters with the default setting switched to on.

The regulator says that filters aren't foolproof, and it's lobbying hard to get ministers to take a tougher stance. Libertarians will see this as a censorship move which in any case won't work. ATVOD accepts that there's no way of keeping all children away from online pornography, but argues that even a small reduction in the numbers will be worthwhile.

In all kinds of areas, from pornography to online gambling to illegal file-sharing, regulators are trying to exercise national control over the global web. They've had a few victories - the UK is acting to stop gambling sites reaching underage gamblers. But mostly the web remains ungovernable.

 
Rory Cellan-Jones, Technology correspondent Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 109.

    Ranum's Law: "You can't solve social problems, with software". Also, DNS filtering is trivial to bypass - so trivial, that the solution is being spray-painted on walls of public buildings in Turkey, given that DNS filtering is what was originally used to try to "block" Twitter. Expect kids to start trading both captured content and IP address lists as samizdata.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 108.

    Let's start by defining what constitutes an "effective age check". Children lie (shock, horror), and can often get hold of parental credentials for long enough to note down or memorise numbers. Also, there's the balancing-act with privacy; what identity-revealing details would need to be disclosed, in order to support an assertion of being aged above a given threshold? It won't work, folks...

  • rate this
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    Comment number 107.

    Just sounds like another body trying to justify its existence, hardly news. If children really want to find it, you cannot stop them curiosity wins every time. If it's not online then doctors & nurses it is. The ones that don't want to find it don't care enough about it. If parents are that bothered then it's their responsibility to censor/restrict things.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 106.

    This is entirely the responsibility of parents to monitor and discipline their children, without impinging on the freedom of other adults to make whatever choices they decide to make. They are your children, not ours, if parents want censorship, they can impose it themselves, but they have no right to affect the lives of other adults, and no right to impose their censorship on everyone.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 105.

    'And isn't it the job of parents, not regulators, to keep children safe online?'

    Absolutely. Parents need to learn how to create a safe environment for children to surf the web. Age restriction filters on the PC work very well. I have set this up for my friends and their kids cannot access porn. http://windows.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows/set-parental-controls#1TC=windows-7 this is just 1 example

 

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