The Great British Internet Filter – how to protect children from the “bad” parts of the Internet

Yesterday David Cameron, Prime Minister, made a speech about making the internet safer for children by cracking down on online pornography. Let’s look at what he said about an Internet Filter, and see if it stacks up.

“I want to talk about the internet, the impact it’s having on the innocence of our children, how online pornography is corroding childhood and how, in the darkest corners of the internet, there are things going on that are a direct danger to our children and that must be stamped out.”

Yes, the internet is being used to disseminate pornography, and provide tools for the transfer of images (and video) of acts that are deemed illegal not only in the UK, but in other countries as well.

“Now, let me be very clear right at the start: the internet has transformed our lives for the better. It helps liberate those who are oppressed, it allows people to tell truth to power, it brings education to those previously denied it, it adds billions to our economy, it is one of the most profound and era-changing inventions in human history.”

The internet is also a powerful force for good too, democratising information, educating, publicising, enabling business and populations. It is a profound change, and as with all change, it takes a while for people to understand what it is capable of, to mitigate it’s risks and (in the words of an old song) accentuate the positive.

Mythical non-regulation

He then goes on to talk about how the internet has gained a mythical status in the eyes of some, and that it cannot be regulated. We must balance that against the fact that some content is not suitable for our children. We protect them from some things in films, from buying somethings in shops (knives, cigarettes, alcohol). There are two challenges wrapped up in the Internet, the first is the content creation, which in most case is covered by existing criminal legislation (or could be if it was correctly drafted), the second is preventing the access to legal material by children to whom we as a society have deemed it inappropriate, given their age.

“My argument is that the internet is not a side-line to real life or an escape from real life, it is real life. … So we’ve got to be more active, more aware, more responsible about what happens online.”

And here, the Prime Minister has hit the nail on the head. No more is the Internet a separate thing from real life (as it was when it wasn’t ubiquitous, and constrained by speed), it is now so deeply integrated into our lives, being available everywhere on mobile devices. So as a society as a whole we should recognise that impact of what happens on the Internet is real, and in some cases, harmful.

“Indeed, they [the police and CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre] have together cut the total amount of known child abuse content hosted in the UK from 18% of the global total in 1996 to less than 1% today.”

This bit may well be true, but is probably the result of the changing dynamics of the Internet itself. Back in 1996, the UK was on of the most prominent host countries on the Internet, and with the rise of Internet connectivity across the world, hosting has moved across the world, so naturally the UK will have a smaller portion of the total pot (even if that pot is much bigger than it was.)

Can the Internet Filter be created?

He then goes on to talk about the various steps search engines are taking to prevent images being found, but that this is not enough, especially when the search engines are the prime means of discovering this material in the first place. So the question is simple, in that can they blacklist material, provided a list of sites hosting it? Technically, here the answer must be yes, (it might be difficult, but it is not impossible). The real question then is SHOULD we prevent this material being seen by a young audience? As a society, it would seem that we have already agreed that we should, based on our behaviour elsewhere.

“You’re the people who take pride in doing what they say can’t be done. You hold hackathons for people to solve impossible internet conundrums. Well hold a hackathon for child safety. Set your greatest brains to work on this. You’re not separate from our society, you’re part of our society and you must play a responsible role within it.”

And here the last sentence is critical to how search engines are going to be allowed to operate in the future, and that they must step up if they wish to maintain their status in society as trusted purveyors of information.

Public WiFi will be protected

“On public wi-fi, of which more than 90% is provided by 6 companies : O2, Virgin Media, Sky, Nomad, BT and Arquiva. I’m pleased to say we’ve now reached an agreement with all of them that family friendly filters are to be applied across public wi-fi networks wherever children are likely to be present.”

Well, that’s it all sewn, up then! With access being prevented in public locations, children are safe. Except that is not the case, as we also need to protect accesses from home, where there is a mixed audience, some who need protecting, and some who may not want the nanny state being involved in managing what they watch.

But is an Internet Filter enough for each home?

“Inside the home, on the private family network, it is a more complicated issue. There’s been a big debate about whether internet filters should be set to a default “on”position, in other words with adult content filters applied by default, or not. … Those who wanted default “on” said, “It’s a no-brainer: just have the filter set to “on”, then adults can turn them off if they want to and that way we can protect all children whether their parents are engaged in internet safety or not? But others said default “on” filters could create a dangerous sense of complacency. They said that with default filters parents wouldn’t bother to keep an eye on what their kids are watching, as they’d be complacent; they’d just assume the whole thing had been taken care of. Now, I say we need both”

And this is where the crux of the debate is occurring. In the same way as those that want to have a regulated internet want the state to manage the content, no matter where it may be, or how it is accessed, we have those that want the state to protect our children by preventing access to dangerous material by default.

On the other side, we have those that believe that free access to the internet is a right, and that they have responsibility for setting the boundaries within their home. An Internet Filter is an anathema to them, as it removes their right to choose.

But my child knows more than I do!

But we all know that our children are more adept at technology than we are. They’ve grown up with it, and are already using it in ways in which we couldn’t imagine. They also enjoy challenges, such as how to disrupt, divert or destroy things that prevent them doing what they’d like. So we as a society, as a family need to be aware of what is in the Internet, and as parents and community members do what we can to make access as difficult as possible.

“So, making filters work is one front we’re acting on; the other is education. In the new national curriculum, launched just a couple of weeks ago, there are unprecedented requirements to teach children about online safety.”

So another prong in the attack is to educate the children, but doesn’t that just make them more aware of the possibilities, and not provide any safeguards against preventing access?

“People of my generation grew up in a completely different world … This is still relatively new, a digital landscape, a world of online profiles and passwords, and speaking as a parent, most of us do need help in navigating it.”

And here is our responsibility, we also have to learn. Just as our children should be made aware of the dangers, so should we, but we also need to know how to make the internet a safer place for our loved ones.

So how can we mitigate access to the material in our own homes?

From software on PC’s such as NetNanny, proxy servers with filters such as squidGuard and Dansguardian, there are multiple options. All of these require setup on devices in the home, and most importantly maintenance to keep upto date. The quickest and easiest way would be to change the DNS provider issued by DHCP from your Internet router to use a provider such as OpenDNS. OpenDNS (and others) let you enable the filters there (after setting up a free account). The “wisdom of the internet determines when these sites should be allowed or not. Or if you’re keen on having this, speak to your service provider to turn the “Internet Filter” on, as recommended by our Prime Minister.

Update: Dansguardian has been superceded by e2guardian