UK mobile operators to censor 3G content

Six of the U.K.’s largest mobile phone operators announced plans Monday to censor content and services delivered over new third-generation (3G) handsets as part of an effort to keep minors from accessing adult material such as gambling sites, pornography and unmonitored chat rooms.

The plan, unveiled by operators Orange Personal Communications Services Ltd., Vodafone Group PLC, Virgin Mobile Telecoms Ltd., Hutchison 3G UK Ltd., O2 (UK) Ltd. and T-Mobile UK Ltd., came in the form of a code of practice developed by the companies in coordination with government and charity groups.

The code will come into force by the end of the year when the operators expect to have new handsets on the market that offer Internet access, picture messaging and a variety of new services, some of which will not be fit for users under the age of 18, they said.

According to the code, all commercial content deemed unsuitable for minors will be classified “18” and not be made available to customers unless they verify their age. Likewise, unmonitored chat rooms will only be accessible for adult users, and parents will be able to apply filters to operators’ Internet access services to keep minors from accessing mature content.

While the details of the plan are still being hammered out, Virgin Mobile spokeswoman Alison Bonny said she believes that most operators will choose to automatically block users from adult content and services until they prove their age.

The content classification will be performed by an independent body that has not yet been selected, Bonny said.

The code of practice was released on the heels of a report issued by U.K. charity group NCH last week, warning that new Internet-enabled devices could fuel a rise in child porn if left unchecked.

The NCH and six other charities participating in the Children’s Charities Coalition for Internet Safety (CHIS) applauded the plan Monday, calling it a major step forward in protecting children from pedophiles and pornography on the Internet.

However, the group expressed concern over children using handsets already available on the market, and called for fixed-line Internet providers to adopt the same stringent rules.

U.K. Communications Minister Stephen Timms also praised the plan, releasing a statement Monday that called the code an excellent example of responsible self regulation.

Mike Dennehy, spokesman for the U.K.’s Department of Trade and Industry, said that the department would rather have the operators agree on self-regulation than have to impose rules of conduct.

“It’s about priorities and protecting vulnerable people,” Dennehy said.

Simon Davies, spokesman for Orange in the U.K., said that the code represents the first time that mobile operators have come together to develop a plan to filter content delivered over new 3G handsets. Although other industry-wide groups have coordinated efforts on health and compatibility issues, none have worked together to filter content, he said.

This is mostly due to the fact that 3G handsets are just starting to enter the market, offering consumers content and services that were previously unavailable. The handsets are also expected to have more advanced Internet browsing than previous phones have offered. The operators are therefore working to provide Net filters for their services, Bonny said.

“We are going to have a variety of filters that will allow parents to protect their children from inappropriate content,” Bonny said.

While the mobile operators, government and charities seem to agree that the rules represent a positive step toward protecting children, concerns still remain over how the rules will be implemented.

The devil is in the details, according to the CHIS, which expressed concern over how content will be monitored and reviewed.

Likewise, one mobile phone customer at a Carphone Warehouse retail store in central London said Monday that although the plan sounds reasonable, she would be annoyed if the mobile operators made it difficult for her to verify her age and access adult content.

“I already have enough trouble getting my Internet and messaging to work, and just getting customer service,” she said.

However, another store customer remarked that it wouldn’t matter even if the new rules made accessing adult content a bit of hassle.

“I think it’s a good plan,” he said. “It’s fair.”

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