The government has decided to stop short of forcing telcos to filter websites at a network level, after discovering that there wasn't a major "appetite" for such a system among parents who want to prevent their kids from accessing supposedly inappropriate material online.
Instead, Whitehall wants the ISP industry to advise and steer its customers towards making an "active choice" about the kind of content they want their children to see on websites by offering software that blocks out, for example, pornography and self-harming sites.
The government made the apparent climbdown in response [PDF] to a 10-week public consultation process that was ironically blighted by website problems that followed a serious privacy gaffe by the Department for Education, which led to it being found to have breached the Data Protection Act by the Information Commissioner's Office.
Prime Minister David Cameron had previously indicated that he wanted telcos to follow the lead of TalkTalk, which was the first big name ISP to introduce network-level filtering of websites for its customers.
The government said today:
It is... clear that in accepting that responsibility, parents want to be in control, and that it would be easier for them to use the online safety tools available to them if they could learn more about those tools.
They also want information about internet safety risks and what to do about them. There was no great appetite among parents for the introduction of default filtering of the internet by their ISP: only 35 percent of the parents who responded favoured that approach. There were even smaller proportions of parents who favoured an approach which simply asked them what they would like their children to access on the internet, with no default settings (13 percent) or a system that combines the latter approach with default filtering(15 percent).
In effect, the government's three propositions for how parents might police their kids' access to the internet were pooh-poohed by those responding to the consultation paper.
The government continued:
Although there was only minority support among parents for the three options consulted on, the government does not believe parents are uninterested in their children’s safety online: the very high percentages of parents who think they have the responsibility for their children’s safety suggests otherwise.
However, the offer to parents should be reformulated in a way that ensures that children can be given the levels of protection their parents think is appropriate for them, reduces the risk of uninterested parents avoiding online safety issues, and does not impose a solution on adult users or non-parents.
As recently as last month, the Daily Mail - which has led a huge campaign against online smut even as it continues to titillate its readers with tons of women in bikinis - suggested that Cameron was about to call for a tightening up of parental controls online. That report cited Downing Street sources.
It's now unclear if that story was absolute poppycock or if No 10 had a last-minute change of heart based on the tepid responses it received from the public consultation.
Either way, the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) welcomed the move.
"Online safety is a shared responsibility between parents and the wider industry, including ISPs, manufacturers and retailers, via providing easy to use tools, advice and information," the lobby group's secretary general Nick Lansman told The Register.
"ISPA will be working further with government and others on next steps."
ISPs will be expected to urge their customers to switch on parental controls, the government said, where children are in the household and using the interwebs.
It noted that the big four telcos in Blighty - BT, BSkyB, TalkTalk and Virgin Media - had already done a great deal with so-called "active choice" by offering a range of tools to their subscribers.
The government is urging providers to go one step further and configure their systems to actively encourage parents, whether they are new or existing customers, to switch on parental controls. The government believes providers should automatically prompt parents to tailor filters to suit their child’s needs e.g. by preventing access to harmful and inappropriate content.
However - for now at least - the decision to effectively censor such material from the prying eyes of youngsters is left squarely at the door of parents. Telcos will not be forced to police such filtering of content.
Meanwhile, the government is asking ISPs "to put in place appropriate measures to check that the person setting up the parental controls is over the age of 18."
It also called on the tech industry as well as retailers to "develop universally-available family friendly internet access which is easy to use." Downing Street is hoping to see devices supplied with such tools to become a standard feature.
Government will not prescribe detailed solutions, but we will expect industry to adapt the principles of this approach to their services, systems and devices so that their customers, and particularly parents and children, have highly-effective, easy to use and free tools that facilitate children’s safety online.
In April this year, the telco industry lambasted an independent Parliamentary inquiry into online child safety that was chaired by Tory MP Claire Perry by saying that its recommendations were unworkable.
That report had recommended that "ISPs should be tasked with rolling out single account network filters for domestic broadband customers that can provide one-click filtering for all devices connected to a home internet connection within 12 months". ®