Web companies face dilemma as Government tries to 'clean-up' internet
Irish internet service providers have been living with a big question over the last 12 months: will the Government try to force them to introduce a new range of content filters and web-blocking technology as part of a drive to 'clean up' the internet for Irish users?
The issue has become politically charged with UK prime minister David Cameron spearheading a campaign to get British ISPs on board with more pro-active filtering, aimed specifically at cutting out access to adult pornography for kids.
The UK initiative has seen partial success for Cameron, with British ISPs having agreed to make customers choose whether or not they wish to have a parental filter applied when they first switch on their internet service.
However, Ireland looks set to go a different route. According to confidential documents seen by The Irish Independent, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, right, will recommend to the Cabinet that ISPs should merely be "encouraged" to offer "advice" and "support" to parents who wish pursue the option of installing a parental filter.
In other words, while the Government here sees filtering as a sensible option for many home broadband setups, it is not going to force broadband users to accept it. Nor, would it seem, will it compel ISPs here to provide parental filters to customers.
In relation to how to deal with websites that host illegal content, such as child-abuse material, the Government's confidential report says that a number of existing agencies and industry initiatives should be bolstered rather than introducing new requirements on ISPs to block websites here.
This approach is likely to be welcomed both by internet service providers and free speech advocates, who have reservations about enforced content filters and web-blocking mandates for different reasons.
First, ISPs say that shifting the burden of content regulation on to them is both unfair and potentially unworkable. Policing everything on the web, they say, would constitute a whole new legal burden that they are not set up to deal with. Secondly, there is a fear of censorship creep.
"While everyone's motives are good, when you look at it closely, it might get tricky trying to find the line between protecting against child abuse material and censorship," said Michele Neylon, managing director of Blacknight, Ireland's largest web domain hosting firm.
"You can say 'just put in the blockers or the filters, sure it's grand and they probably know what they're doing'," he said. "But I'd be very wary about that. We live in an age where governments are starting to become more involved in surveillance and other things. There's a real danger of blindly following the UK without being fully aware of the implications."
This philosophy is understood to be shared by Mr Rabbitte, who has spoken before about his distaste for censorship as a general principle.
Last summer, he indicated that the Government would be reluctant to follow the tone set by David Cameron.
"Illegality is different and if we see an effective strategy against that on our neighbouring island then we might look at that," he said at the time. "But as it is, it's not something we're focusing on."
The confidential government report notes that concerns about "the impact of indecent content" are not new.
"Indeed, there is a history of moral concern regarding threats posed by new media forms and the appropriate kinds of regulation required to protect children from harmful influence," it says.
"Censorship of the media on the grounds of obscenity is still a feature of the legal system in Ireland, even if largely inactive." This includes, it adds, "material that is obscene, blasphemous or contrary to public morality".
The report looks at some alternatives to parental filtering or outright web-blocking. One of these is age verification technology, which appears to serve the gambling industry tolerably well. However, this industry is much more regulated than the pornography business, with – one would assume – far higher compliance rates. The report doubts that this would constitute an effective solution.
Another option could be content classification or ratings, in a similar way to films or video games. Unfortunately, the technology in this area is either ignored by most of the online industry or is too easy to get around. For example, 40pc of kids aged 11 or 12 have a social media account, despite services such as Facebook having a minimum age requirement of 13. The report also concludes that this is unlikely to succeed.
Mr Rabbitte says that he will bring the proposals to the Cabinet later this month. He described the report, which was put together by a panel of experts chosen by the minister, as "significant".
"Striking the balance between preserving online freedom of expression and restricting access to harmful content in a difficult and challenging task," concludes the report.
"There is not yet an international consensus on the best approach, nor whether solutions in one jurisdiction may be suitable or appropriate in another."