Lorcan Burke, CEO of AdaptiveMobile, which povides mobile subscriber protection services, urges network operators to play their part in protecting children from exposure to inappropriate content on their mobile phones
The Mobile Broadband Group, which consists of the UKs top six mobile operators, has been lobbying government to legislate handset manufacturers to protect vulnerable subscribers from harmful websites and the mobile Internet. While I think it is a positive development that this issue is finally receiving the attention it deserves, I do believe giving the sole responsibility to handset manufacturers is not the way to go, and fundamentally overlooks some key issues.
Legislating against illegal websites is more complex than simply blocking a list of harmful or illicit URLs. Organisations such as The Internet Watch Foundation in the UK already works closely with the Government, law enforcement organisations, ISPs and mobile network operators to minimise the availability of illegal Internet content, including images of child sexual abuse, criminally obscene content and incitement to racial hatred content. Concerns arise, however, with websites that are legal, but suitable only for certain age groups, such as websites offering dieting advice and online chat services. And while Dr. Tanya Byrons recent report on child safety on the Internet has uncovered a number of very interesting proposals, such as classifying video and online games in a way that makes them easier to understand, it will be important to apply the same rules to games played on mobile phones.
One size doesnt fit all
Classifying on behalf of all parents and end users what is safe and what is harmful is an impossible challenge for operators. Different people have different ideas on what constitutes a threat to their child. Parents need to have access to tools which they can use to set policies for their childrens phones according to their own requirements. According to a survey by Intuitive Mobile in 2007, one in 10 children say their parents give them no rules for mobile Internet usage. With the handsets offering better mobile Internet features, children will inevitably use their devices to play mobile games, access Facebook and, potentially, adult content sites. Considering that many parents have strict rules on the types of programmes their kids watch on TV, and what they can use their home PC for, it is surprising they are giving them a free rein on their mobiles.
Suffering in silence
Many parents are unaware of how significant the child protection issue is. A third of children being bullied are afraid to tell anybody because they are worried their parents will take away their mobile phone or stop them using their computer (NCH, 2007) and similarly, nearly three quarters of teens do not go to anyone for advice (MSN Cyber Bullying Report, 2007). Considering the average customer care call can cost a carrier up to 40, once children begin to share their bullying experiences with their parents, operators will need to prepare for an increase in both costs and resources, and deal with the consequential impact to their brand integrity and customer churn.
The buck stops with the operator
If filtering of illegal, illicit or inappropriate content is going to be handset-based, who is the subscriber likely to phone if there is an issue? Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson? No, they will phone their mobile operator, because it is the first port of call for any mobile-related queries. But not only that, subscribers dont want the extra expense and headache of managing the content on their handset imagine downloading anti-virus patches onto your mobile every week!
Ofcom has proposed a BSI kitemark for handsets to filter inappropriate content. This may initially seem like a good idea, but realistically, the only effective way to control content is from within an operators network. Many parents are less skilled at configuring their handsets than their children, and the process of deciding which sites to block is a daunting task. Network-based protection allows parents to define policies based upon both content category type, and specific sites - thus addressing sites they may not themselves be aware of, but which are unsuitable for their child.
In addition, Mobile Network Operators can not only give parents the ability to manage the web experience for their children, but also address concerns such as bullying, by having the ability to block certain numbers from contacting them, and to set up restrictions on the times the child is allowed to use the mobile phone. This offers them the ability to personalise their experience within parameters appropriate to the individual.
Controls are already available and can be integrated in the operators network to protect subscribers against illegal or inappropriate content, mobile viruses, malware, and unsolicited or unauthorised communications.
Understanding is key
I am often surprised at how drastically our lives have changed in the last 10 years, mostly due to new technologies, including the Internet and mobile phones. While many parents may be lagging behind in the adoption of these services, they still have to be aware that their children could be miles ahead of them, and they have to make sure they understand the dangers their children are exposed to. Everything possible must be done to assist parents with this problem, and mobile operators especially should do their utmost to give parents complete peace of mind.