independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Adrian Weckler: Time for an adult debate about scourge of porn

'No one measure can make the internet safe for children – the key for parents is to talk to their kids about usage'

IS the Government right not to seek anti-pornography filters on home broadband connections, as the British government is doing?

Yes, say pragmatists and civil liberty organisations: blocking legal content is a slippery slope, while blocking filters usually doesn't work anyway. (Just ask the music industry.)

No, say some children's rights activists: it is worth compromising some freedoms in order to prevent the inappropriately early sexualisation of children.

To recap: David Cameron's government is attempting to make internet service providers – the equivalent of Eircom or UPC – place ever-present anti-pornography filters on home broadband subscriptions. (A filter is a technological way of blocking access to websites.)

In other words, to view something deemed by the government to be 'adult' in nature, you would need to sign in on a daily basis to your ISP's exemption service to let it know of your preferences. It is a little like asking anybody with a TV to sign in with a special code any time a film with explicit content is broadcast.

Civil libertarians say it is a little extreme. Some child protection advocates say that it may be worth looking at. Who is right?

There are some reasonable arguments in favour of filters. For example, television regulation has one: it is called the 9pm watershed. This is a generally agreed settled filter, maintained principally to prevent unsuitable content from reaching children's eyes and ears.

The internet, one may argue, is now not so different to television in its cultural impact: many kids use the web as much as they use the TV. Perhaps, then, it is time to consider broader controls on a seminal cultural and behavioural medium?

Moreover, there are some genuinely compelling reasons for filters in more serious matters.

A recent EU directive to combat child sexual exploitation specifically mandates Ireland and other EU countries to block vile child pornography websites and images, probably through filtering technology.

"Member states may take measures to block access to web pages containing or disseminating child pornography towards the internet users within their territory," it says, in Article 25.

"These measures must be set by transparent procedures and provide adequate safeguards, in particular to ensure that the restriction is limited to what is necessary and proportionate and that users are informed of the reason for the restriction. Those safeguards shall also include the possibility of judicial redress."

This is surely reasonable. There are few digital rights enthusiasts and civil libertarians I know who would oppose this principle, if properly set up and regulated under law.

But this is a different matter to what is being proposed in Britain and what is likely to be rejected by the Government here. What is at stake in the current British government proposals is an all-encompassing filter to block legal adult imagery, by default, on home internet subscriptions.

Even if you agree with the thrust of this proposal, there are significant barriers to its successful implementation. Chief among these is a pragmatic one: broadly based internet filters rarely work in free democracies.

For example, last month the music industry finally obtained an injunction against Irish ISPs to force them to block access to the file-sharing website 'The Pirate Bay'. This hard-won filter was a pyrrhic victory: accessing 'The Pirate Bay' remains a facile task for any 14-year-old that spends 30 seconds researching the issue on Google.

Even technology giants such as Apple, Amazon and Netflix, with their engineers and their billion-dollar research budgets, struggle to contain users of their online services to the filtered territories they are supposed to use them in.

It is not all scary news for parents, though. The good news is that there are lots of existing child safety filters, many of them free, available to download. (For PC, try 'Net Nanny' or 'Metacerf', for iPad or iPhone try 'Olly'.) These work very well: they not only prevent unsuitable imagery and websites from popping up on home computers, iPads and smartphones, but they also block (and alert parents to) inappropriate content on any email, instant messaging or social media services used.

A combination of these tools and some common sense may make for a satisfactory interim solution to child safety online.

"No one measure alone can make the internet a safe place for children," Maria Corbett, acting chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, told the Irish Independent. "The most important thing parents can do is to communicate with their children about their internet use and safety online."

Irish Independent

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