Health Information: For Adults Only

Katherine Norman discusses her experience of finding maternity, midwifery and parenting sites blocked by Three and how her research led her to conclude that as a parent she will not make use of ISP parental controls.

Image: CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: Robert Carlos Pecino

As a parent I will not be making use of the parental controls offered by ISPs. This may seem counter-intuitive. Why would I not do everything to protect my children online? But my recent experiences with adult-content filtering on one of the big mobile phone networks, Three, has highlighted for me the issues involved with filtering content - the unreliability of the filters, the problems with letting someone else decide what is suitable for your child, the problems with complaining about blocked sites to a company, and the potential issues for adults of accessing essential information if parental-controls are turned on at ISP level or shared devises.

Whilst on holiday I found that a highly respected evidence-based breastfeeding support site is blocked by Three. I complain to Three, sure that this was over-blocking, since most breastfeeding sites aren't blocked. But over the coming weeks I found lots of similar blocked sites. Eventually the pattern emerges - Three is blocking maternity sites, including many national organisations and (based on a small sample) about half of independent midwives. I found over 50 blocked sites in a couple of hours surfing. 

Now as it turns out I don't have any of the IDs required to verify age so although I am well over 18 I couldn't turn off the adult-content filtering on my Pay As You Go phone. By now I don’t want it turned off – I want to know what is being blocked!

After five weeks, and several hours on the phone to Three I discover that most of these sites are intentionally blocked as ‘adult-only’ pregnancy and sexual health sites. This has now changed and these sites are no longer blocked. Three also said that they would be changing the verification for adult-only content and that they needed to look into procedures for dealing with complaints about blocked sites. But it shouldn't take an almost obsessive effort by one parent to find out why something is being blocked and have it dealt with. 


What is adult-only content?

Every parent is going to have different ideas about what is suitable for their children, and suitability for a five year old is vastly different to that of a seventeen year old. Someone at Three at some point  decided that pregnancy is an adult-only topic. For me maternity is far from adult-content - there are children's picture books on the subject! Birth is an essential part of the human experience and these sites have immense educational value in a world where most of us reach adulthood with a poor understanding of pregnancy, birth or looking after a baby. The blocking wasn’t about potentially rude words, or the images used, purely the subject of the sites.

Many adults will assume that parental controls are only going to be used to block things that are widely accepted as being adult-content - sexual content, and violence. But the consultation on parental controls and the application of filters in this case suggests otherwise. Some parents will want nudity blocked - others will welcome non-sexual nude pictures as artistic, cultural and educational - think Michelangelo's David. Sexual health and sexual education sites raise other issues of access to materials for, not only personal wellbeing but for completing homework. 

It is essential that any company providing parental-controls has to detail what content is blocked and why, and that parents can choose what is suitable for their children. Otherwise parental controls do just the opposite - they remove a parent's control. 


Filters aren't reliable

Suppose I did agree that pregnancy and sexual health sites should be adult only. My experience with the filters used by Three has clearly shown that you can't rely on them to block content. Most breastfeeding sites, and an apparently random half of independent midwives weren't blocked. So there is a real danger of parents relying on filters that won't block all the sites they want them too. Filtering is no substitute for parental supervision.

Apart from these fundamental problems with filtering I came across others that have potential to be a problem, if the procedures aren't in place to prevent this. 

There is a risk that the need to verify age with opt-out parental controls may result in adults being unable to access content, with the potential to marginalise those unable to get a credit card, drive or afford a passport. Or by choosing parental-controls at ISP level parents may inadvertently find themselves unable to access information they need at short notice - a particular problem with maternity and health information. When parents have to turn off parental-controls to function as parents it brings into question the whole concept of parental controls. 

We need information on what is blocked and why, and procedures for reviewing blocking of sites in a transparent and timely way, and the ability to find out which sites are blocked. Without these there is a risk that blocking of sites, either by mistake or due to differences of opinion, may affect not only businesses, but create problems for everyone trying to access every day information. Rather than empowering parents, if implemented badly parental-controls at ISP level have the potential to frustrate and dis-empower. 



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By Katherine Norman on Sep 27, 2012

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