Just what is family-friendly Wi-Fi?
Web filtering is not as simple as it sounds, says Brian Pellot
19 Jun 13

Web filtering is not as simple as it sounds, says Brian Pellot

At a meeting with Culture Secretary Maria Miller yesterday, representatives of the web industry reviewed measures to protect children from accessing “harmful or inappropriate” content online. The Culture Department  celebrated the fact that “the main public Wi-Fi providers have pledged to offer family friendly Wi-Fi in public places where children are likely to be”.

But what does family friendly public Wi-Fi mean?

If you stand on a high street in the UK and scan for a connection on your smartphone, you’ll likely find BSkyB’s The Cloud or similar hotspots from BT and O2.

Mumsnet’s Family Friendly WiFi programme asks these and other providers of public internet access to “put in place filters to restrict inappropriate content” and to use “appropriate category level filtering in the same way that mobile operators filter content and parental controls can be implemented at home.” If we’ve learnt anything from the UK’s mobile filters, we know that this is problematic, to say the very least.

Mobile internet filters often overblock legal and appropriate sites and miss those they are designed to restrict. Open Rights Group reported that a French digital rights group and several clothing stores were among the sites wrongfully blocked on major mobile networks in the UK last year. The fact that such filters are usually turned on by default means that adults are prevented from accessing legal content on their phones, even in the privacy of their own homes. Adult users can contact their mobile service provider to turn filters off, but many don’t know this is an option or can’t be bothered to make the call.

Some public WiFi providers are already restricting content in the UK. The Cloud automatically filters “adult content” whereas BT offers an opt-in filter for site partners. But can we really trust crude and inaccurate technical filters blocking legal content in public places?

news release from yesterday’s summit and discussions with industry attendees informed the contents of this post. Index on Censorship, Open Rights Group, English PEN and Big Brother Watch sent a letter to Culture Secretary Maria Miller two weeks ago requesting an invite to the summit, but the DCMS did not respond to our requests for a seat at the table. 

By Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is Director of Global Strategy and Religious Freedom Editor @RNS. Formerly @indexcensorship & @onfreespeech.