Mobile operators to begin testing content filter

31 Jan 2005

The Irish Cellular Industry Association (ICIA) is to begin trials of image detection software in the coming weeks, aimed at preventing underage users from downloading pornographic or inappropriate content to their mobiles.

All four Irish mobile operators, Vodafone, O2, Meteor and 3 are participating in and funding the trial, which is due to last for several months. The system will be hosted on O2’s network. Once the test phase is over, it is anticipated that the software will form the basis of an opt-in service where the operator screens a phone’s content to determine whether it is for the user to download.

The system uses a series of checks on images, based on skin tone and the position of limbs in the picture, to determine whether it is appropriate or inappropriate. According to the ICIA director Tommy McCabe, the software can check any traffic that goes over a mobile network, including images that have been downloaded from a website to a mobile phone and more importantly, images being sent from one device directly to another. The system can also filter website addresses and operators will be able to use this facility to blacklist inappropriate websites.

McCabe acknowledged that during the trial period there would be false negatives and false positives – that is, benign images that may be blocked or unsuitable content that could slip through the net. “It’s an inexact science,” he said. “There is a belief that the technology makes it possible to filter out unsuitable content.” He added that he was hopeful of a greater than 90pc success rate in blocking inappropriate images during the test phase.

The technology trial was originally slated to take place last summer; in June the ICIA launched its code of practice aimed at promoting the safe and responsible use of mobile phones, particularly among minors. At the time, the organisation announced that it would soon begin trials of image filtering software. The issue caused a public outcry early last year when school children in the south west of the country circulated pictures of an underage girl via camera phones.

McCabe said that operators in other countries would be watching the Irish tests with interest. “To our knowledge it’s not being trialled elsewhere,” he said.

Experts had previously suggested that filtering technology was not workable, although since that time some Irish companies have claimed breakthroughs in being able to identify unsuitable content. understands that a preferred bidder has been chosen to provide the technology but the ICIA is not revealing its identity just yet.

By Gordon Smith