Digital Content

Internet service provider M-Web has come under fire for including abortion in a package of "taboo" subjects that include Satanism and pornography for young web surfers.

The Women's Legal Centre, which earlier this year helped secure an important abortion-rights ruling in favour of minor children, says the restriction appears to be unconstitutional.

However, M-Web said it is merely providing an option for parents to "restrict access to certain topics".

The package appears in M-Web's free "safe-surfing" option, which parents can activate to keep their kids from "unsavoury or harmful" influences on the web.

When activated, the programme automatically denies access to web pages or sites that feature or promote pornography, nudity, criminal activities, gambling, illegal drugs, abortion, cults, Satanism and weapons. It also cuts out blacklisted chat sites.

Director of the Women's Legal Centre Michelle O' Sullivan said the right of access to information and the right to reproductive decision-making were guaranteed by the constitution.

"In a sense, what they (M-Web) are doing is limiting access to information to minors that they will require in order to make an informed decision," she said.

"I would think it is in violation of the constitution." O'Sullivan said it could also be argued that the restriction violated the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, which said a person seeking a termination had a right to be fully informed on the procedure, and made it an offence to prevent access to termination.

In May this year, Pretoria High Court had confirmed that girls under 18 could have abortions without parental consent. She said the internet would be a "very important" source of information for young people, and it was vital they were able to use it.

General manager of M-Web's home division Russell Dreisenstock said his company was not limiting access to any information available on the internet, and that its "parental guidance tool" was simply an "optional restriction" that parents could select. "The final decision remains with parents.

"However, in the light of the new (court ruling), we will be consulting with our subscriber base to reassess how our parental control tool should be adapted. All or nothing, says M-Web "We would welcome any input from the Women's Legal Centre on this issue." Dreisenstock said parents could not activate only particular items on the "taboo" list: they activated either the whole package, or nothing. This was because M-Web had found that the more complex the software options it offered, the less people were inclined to use them. "So in the interests of simplicity we've adopted a switch-on, switch-off approach."