Phone firms wrestle with porn dilemma

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Pornography and other adult services are creating big problems for many mobile phone firms.

Operators are struggling to find ways to stop children and others accidentally stumbling across adult content but they also want to make it easy for those that want to pay for porn to get at it.

This week phone firms, industry analysts and mobile content creators are meeting at a conference in London to debate the ways in which operators can strike this balance.

Networks fear that if they do not quickly find a workable way to handle adult content the Government will impose its own regulations.

Already adult content, which includes pornography as well as violent computer games and other age-restricted activities, is proving lucrative for many mobile phone firms.

But some customers’ desire for smutty SMS chat or titillating images creates a headache for the phone operators said Andrew Bud, head of messaging firm Mblox and a board member of the Mobile Entertainment Forum.

“In many ways we are back in the early 1960s and finding what are the bounds of public acceptability of adult content in the new medium,” he said.

What mobile firms did not want to do, said Mr Bud, was to make the adult content easy to find accidentally.

“They are trying to find the right balance between editorial freedom and really annoying the public,” he said. But, he said, what the industry also wanted to avoid was an “opt-in” system that had all adult content turned off unless people specifically ask for it.

The industry is already moving to put in place a code of conduct that brands adult content and tries to ensure that children do not get access to it. The code covers images, video, gambling, games, chatrooms and net access but not premium rate voice and text message services.

The good news, said Mr Bud, was that regulating content on mobile phone networks was much easier than on the net. There were a limited number of ways that adult content could be inserted into the mobile network, he said, making it straightforward to find and cut off abusers.

He added that because cash usually changes hands when adult content is bought, it can be easy to trace abusers and cut them off from the mobile networks.

Ray Anderson, head of content aggregator Bango, said rating, filtering and blocking systems could also prove much more useful than those used online. “Mobile telephones are typically allocated to an individual rather than PCs which can have a lot of users,” he said, “It can be a much safer environment.”

But, he said, blocking and filtering systems need to be flexible so that they can be tuned to different sorts of users such as businesses or concerned parents. Mr Anderson said he expected to see the emergence of phones specifically made for children that have filters and blocking systems already built in. As well as debating better ways to handle adult content, some speakers will also be raising other concerns about new phone technology.

Dr Rachel O’Connell, head of the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire and an expert on paedophiles’ use of technology, said smart phones bring with them a range of new risks that operators need to be aware of. She said that software tools exist which would allow someone to grab information about a child via their phone and build up useful information about when they were vulnerable.

Dr O’Connell said only a small number of paedophiles are likely to become such keen users of technology but she said the risks had to be taken into account. “I think we need to understand that perhaps the profile we have of a paedophile is going to morph in lots of ways,” she said. “But,” she added, “what’s wonderful about the current situation is the mobile telephone industry is much more motivated to take action than the internet industry was.”

 

The town that turned off BT

The residents of one Yorkshire town got so fed up with being passed over for broadband access that they set up Britain’s first ISP cooperative.  The Calder Valley in West Yorkshire is famous for being the poet Ted Hughes’s birthplace, having an outstanding annual writing conference and being a slightly eccentric area with an ex-hippie-commune feel about it. Now one of the valley’s several market towns, Hebden Bridge, is set to become known for pioneering technology developments in the world of broadband.
The residents of one Yorkshire town got so fed up with being passed over for broadband access that they set up Britain’s first ISP cooperative.  The Calder Valley in West Yorkshire is famous for being the poet Ted Hughes’s birthplace, having an outstanding annual writing conference and being a slightly eccentric area with an ex-hippie-commune feel about it. Now one of the valley’s several market towns, Hebden Bridge, is set to become known for pioneering technology developments in the world of broadband.
 
This is because the Hebden Bridge community has set up Britain’s first cooperative internet service provider (ISP). There are some local ISPs around Britain already, but this co-op version, funded almost entirely without government money, could threaten the very core of BT’s future communications business and provide a shining light for like-minded people throughout the country.
 
The difference between Hebden Bridge’s co-op and other local ISPs is that it will provide an even cheaper broadband service, in addition to locally generated news and information. And with a newly installed wireless system, this West Yorkshire community could ultimately bypass the traditional phone system entirely, allowing villagers to phone each other without using the BT network at all. And it’s all done on a non-profit basis so that the savings for the co-op members are as high as possible.
 
This kind of ground-breaking telecommunication model has put a spotlight on the town. “It shows the power of community,” says Clive Mayhew-Begg, the CEO and founder of My-Zones Europe Ltd, the technology provider for the project. “It’s back to the whole concept of cooperative buying and proves that you don’t need to be an AOL to get the best price in the marketplace.
 
“You can be a group of local people and get the best prices and also have the local value-added aspect, which is really important,” he adds. Mayhew-Begg believes as many as 200 similar communities in the UK could soon follow the Hebden Bridge model.
 
It was just a year ago that the wheels were inadvertently set in motion for the co-op ISP to become reality. A number of people were eager to sign up for broadband, but were prevented by BT, which only upgrades local telephone exchanges if take-up of the service can be guaranteed. In the case of Hebden Bridge that meant 500 connections, which for a small rural community is too high.
 
So Mark Harrison, an IT consultant who has lived in the town for many years, and some fellow home-workers formed an action group to lobby BT to change its policy. Harrison and his net-savvy group of residents were frustrated with the slowness of their dial-up internet connections and he feared that without broadband the thriving small business community in the area might begin to disperse and hurt the micro economy.
 
The group lobbied hard but admit they were surprised when in May BT lowered the upgrade trigger to 300 connections. “Our jaws dropped slightly when we realised that the pressure we had put on BT had worked,” says Harrison. This meant that broadband was now available to all 10,000 phone lines in the Hebden Bridge area.
 
However, the action group felt this victory was not enough. Instead of disbanding, they decided to go a step further and take control of their own broadband, and Britain’s first cooperative ISP was born.

 
The project was set up using an initial £70 from co-op shares (£1 per member), a £600 grant from the town council, a donation of £5,000-worth of broadband and wireless equipment from the technology supplier MyZones and lots of help from Harrison and others, the latter estimated to be worth as much as £40,000.
 
Now, seven months after the creation of 3-C (Calder Connect Co-operative), it is providing service to 80 members in Hebden Bridge for £15 to £20 a month, depending on whether members want a fixed-line connection or a (cheaper) wireless connection to broadband.
 
Today the co-op has 320 members, 200 of them from neighbouring Mytholmroyd. It expects the whole town to sign up for 3-C once BT upgrades Mytholmroyd’s telephone exchange in February. The co-op aims to have 1,000 broadband users by the end of 2004, many of them using wireless hotspot technology (Wi-Fi) to share 2-megabit bandwidth connections. Harrison, 3-C’s chairman, thinks that through word-of-mouth and locally printed flyers locals up and down the Calder Valley will choose 3-C over other, commercial ISPs.
 
The savings for members – as much as £10 per month cheaper than BT Openworld broadband – will also mean that a higher percentage of low income homes will be able to afford the service than in other areas of the country. “Through the power of the co-op we want to get into people’s homes that wouldn’t normally have this kind of high-speed connection to the web, so we can raise people’s skills and raise the threshold of who is able to get the service,” says Harrison.
 
There is now a huge buzz around Hebden Bridge as it discovers the power of its own community, says Harrison. Even Stephen Timms, the e-commerce minister, sent a message of support to the recent day of wireless broadband demonstrations in the town.
 
“The real value for the consumer is that the co-op will develop value-added services that you will never get from BT,” says MyZones’ Mayhew-Begg. “It’s a value proposition. It’s a threat to BT and the commercial ISPs and it’s an evolution of the net because it enables a different level of services than if they were just bought individually off commercial suppliers.”
 
But not everyone believes co-op ISPs are the way forward. “I see what they are doing in Hebden Bridge as positive because it is good for the community, but I don’t see it as sustainable,” says Jane Moch, ICT/broadband development manager for the Northamptonshire Partnership, which is bringing broadband to rural communities in that county through public/private partnerships.
 
“Community broadband networks start out because telecommunication companies are not interested or not able to drive services into an area,” says Moch. “If you drive forward by developing a community broadband network, you end up being a telecommunications company – and by becoming a telco you take on all the overhead and the business burdens and the commercial needs of a telco and so it is quite likely to fall apart.”
 
There have been some high-profile failures of community ISPs, such as Invisible Networks in Cambridgeshire. Invisible, headed by Chris Nuttall, the man behind internet pioneer Pipex, became insolvent in October. But Harrison says the co-op approach in the Calder Valley should prevent the kind of difficulties experienced by for-profit ISPs.
 
“The co-op buys the wholesale broadband from BT, and My Zones does the backed provision of service and the authentication of users,” says Harrison. “We have also built in a chunk of money for staff and the co-op will likely have two employees.”
 
Harrison says 3-C will tap into government funding schemes, such as West Yorkshire Social Enterprise, and believes customer support issues can be dealt with through a local co-op volunteer programme. “Most of this has been built through volunteer time and social energy,” he says. “It’s possible because this is a bit of an eccentric valley. Hebden Bridge is the only place I know that has a Christmas party for people who work from home.”
 
Harrison’s can-do approach includes thinking big about how 3-C can earn money consulting for other communities wanting to set up co-operative ISPs. “Even though this is happening in a small valley in rural West Yorkshire, potentially it could be replicated throughout local communities in the UK,” he says.
 
The Hebden Bridge project is helping to fulfil the government’s Broadband Britain strategy and provides an example of why the new super-regulator Ofcom is looking very closely at BT’s wholesale pricing, making sure the operator is not stifling demand.
 
And what is BT’s view of the initiative? “There are a whole range of different initiatives happening,” says a spokesman, “and from BT’s point of view they all increase the visibility of broadband in the market. They are just one of 200-plus ISPs that retail our wholesale product.”