Immobilising adult content

26 November 2004

Christopher Hawkins

The arrival of mobile commerce

With the high profile launch of Vodafone Mobile industry analyst the ARC Group predicts that mobile content space will be worth $50.7 billion by 2009, with entertainment aimed at young people driving much of this growth. Protecting that audience from content aimed at adults presents one of the main obstacles to the growth of mobile commerce, and the UK’s six main mobile operators have taken a number of steps to build confidence amongst parents.

Classification of adult content

Last month the operators set up the Independent Mobile Classification Body (ICMB) to oversee the self-classification of new forms of adult content on mobiles. The IMCB is a subsidiary of premium rate regulator ICSTIS, but its work and funding will be entirely separate. Its ambit covers new forms of content available on 3G mobiles such as still images and video clips. The IMCB’s first job will be to prepare a framework for self-classification by 1 January 2005. The framework will be consistent with standards used in other media and only treat as 18 content that would receive an 18 type classification for the equivalent material in, for example, magazines, films, videos and computer games.

Self-regulation of commercial content

The challenge facing the mobile phone operators is how to ensure that unsuitable commercial content provided by commercial partners does not reach children. To this end, in January 2004, the operators agreed a code of practice for the self-regulation of new forms of content on mobiles. The code covers visual content, on-line gambling, mobile gaming, chat rooms and internet access. It does not cover P2P communications, Premium Rate Services or SMS services, which will continue to be regulated under the ICSTIS Code of Practice.

Under the new code of practice, content classified as “18” will not be made available to customers until the networks, through a process of age verification, are satisfied that the user is at least 18. By default, all commercial content not classified as 18 will be unrestricted. The operators will also monitor the use of chat rooms available to under 18s to guard against inappropriate use. The code also requires the operators to provide advice to users on the nature and use of new mobile devices and services.

It is still unclear exactly how each operator plans to meet each of these aspects – the code recognises that each operator may choose or need to use different organisational and technical solutions. According to Virgin spokeswoman Alison Bonny[1], the practical impact of the code is that most operators will choose to block all users from adult content and services automatically until they prove their age.

Filtering of internet content

Mobile operators have no control over the content that is offered on the internet and are therefore unable to insist that it is classified in accordance with the independent classification framework. Under the code, operators will offer parents and carers the opportunity to apply a filter to the mobile operator's internet access service. The code states that filters will be set at a level that is intended to filter out content approximately equivalent to commercial content with a classification of 18.

In practice, it is hard to see how this will be any more effective than attempts to control the flow of illegal content through the internet. The most threatening material to children remains outside the scope of the new regime. The practical pitfalls of attempts to control illegal content are illustrated by the difficulties experienced by ISPs. The most effective approach for ISPs seems to be the bulk-blocking of content. For instance, BT has been actively blocking access to an unknown number of websites since 21 June 2004, allegedly containing images of child pornography. BT has claimed that up to 20,000 URL requests per day have been blocked as a result.

Guardianship or censorship?

BT’s failure to disclose any information about the banned sites and the precise technical way in which the filtering is deployed has raised serious questions about large scale private censorship on the internet. Both associations of UK internet providers and European internet providers (Euro ISPA) have demanded more information about the exact nature of the blocking.

Vodafone has been filtering internet content since July 2004 – indeed, the fact that not everyone was happy about their mobile operator playing the role of moral arbiter was, in part, responsible for the adoption of the code of practice. As filters may be the only effective means of preventing illegal content reaching users, concerns about private censorship now extend to the mobile sphere.

According to Richard Nash of Euro ISPA[2], it is irresponsible for providers to block websites for their users. Instead of trying to make child pornography invisible, the responsible thing would be to deal with the production of the content. To address such concerns, the code of practice states that mobile operators will work with law enforcement agencies to deal with the reporting of content that may break the criminal law. Where a mobile operator is hosting content, including web or messaging content, it will put in place notify and take-down provisions. The code specifies that the mobile operators will agree processes for dealing with illegal content with law enforcement agencies and implement them by the end of 2004.

Despite any such concerns, the code of practice has generally been welcomed as a step in the right direction. The Children’s Charities Coalition for Internet Safety called it a major step forward in protecting children from paedophiles and pornography on the internet. For some, the current restrictions do not go far enough. UK Charity NCH has expressed concern over children using handsets already available on the market, and has called for fixed-line internet providers to adopt the same stringent rules now in place for new mobile content.

Enforcement

One issue remains – how, if at all, will the new code of practice be enforced? Although the IMCB will be able to investigate complaints about content providers not classifying content in line with their framework, there is no equivalent mechanism where mobile operators breach their self-imposed code of practice. At present, if mobile phone operators’ filters mistakenly bar or permit access to adult content, aggrieved users or parents will not have recourse to a specific complaints procedure. This does not diminish users’ or parents’ rights under existing regulation. The code supplements, and does not conflict with, mobile operators’ or content providers’ responsibilities to abide by all relevant legislation and regulation. For example, all those that deliver advertising or promotion through a mobile device must abide by all relevant Data Protection legislation, including the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003.

Responsible self-regulation?

The Communication Minister, Stephen Timms MP, has hailed “responsible self-regulation”[3] as the best way to meet the needs and expectations of consumers. However, the mobile operators’ self-regulation can arguably be seen as a pre-emptive alternative to more onerous government-led regulation. The code of practice by its very nature is voluntary, flexible and unenforceable. The operators may well take further steps to bolster the code, but for as long as self-regulation reins it seems unlikely that mobile users will have any means of redress against the mobile operators themselves.


[1] Scarlet Pruitt, IDG News Service, 20 January 2004

[2] EDRI-gram - Number 2.15, 4 August 2004

[3] T-Mobile press release, 19 January 2004