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Wednesday 20 August 2014

Treading a fine line between protecting children and guarding freedoms

Adrian Weckler

Published 10/06/2014 | 02:30

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Teachers need to be brought up to speed with internet trends
Teachers need to be brought up to speed with internet trends

THERE are a couple of hot-button issues the Government faces when it comes to protecting children online.

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For example, should it make parental filters mandatory on home broadband connections? How about banning certain kinds of social networks, notorious for cyber-bullying? And what about obligating internet companies to block other types of websites?

This set of proposals, which Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte says is to be brought before Cabinet, treads a fine line between protecting children and guarding basic online freedoms. First, it says that broadband providers such as Eircom and UPC should be "encouraged" – but not forced – to introduce more options for home broadband parental filters. In Ireland, almost two-thirds of parents say that they use adult filters at home already.

The measure would fall short of British measures, where broadband providers now make customers choose whether to use a parental filter or not when they first switch on the service. But that approach has not been followed elsewhere in Europe.

What about banning or blocking cyber-bullying websites? The new proposals stop short of proposing outright bans on some classes of "hurtful" and "harmful" websites where online bullying and other unwanted activity are often found.

One main reason, says the report, is because this probably wouldn't work. Instead, measures such as greater education in schools (where it is proposed to make cyber-bullying awareness a "core element") and new funding for parental education are preferred.

This 'soft' approach on this issue may prove unsatisfactory to some parents, who often interpret the banning of harmful websites as a black-or-white issue. After all, how can anyone justify the continued provision of access to websites rife with bullying or, worse still, those promoting self-harm or eating disorders?

But the Government's proposals may yet represent a sensible compromise. Because while websites that host child abuse material and other such illegal content are clear-cut 'blacklist' candidates, other websites that are merely 'offensive' can prove to be more difficult test cases.

Take Facebook. Because of its size, it likely suffers more incidences of online bullying than most rivals. But it seems an odd thing to ban Facebook outright. One could say the same for Twitter, Instagram and Gmail.

These proposals won't satisfy those who believe the internet is more bad than good.

But their aim appears to be a closer-knit union between law enforcement, parents and the education system rather than souped-up state control over the internet.

Irish Independent

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