Can the Government keep kids safe online?

neil hawkins
By Neil Hawkins

internet safety for children

Give a child a computer and an internet connection, and they will soon find their way to "the darkest corners" of the Web: parents should choose what their children can, and cannot access online.

That's the view of Prime Minister David Cameron, who set out his stall on the battle for tougher restrictions on adult content in a recent Daily Mail article.

Just days before that article was published, however, the Department for Education (DfE) seemed to reject default blocks on online content.

So what exactly is the Government planning to do to keep kids safe online? And will it work?

Blocking all the bad stuff

Default blocks were the recommendations of an independent parliamentary inquiry into online child protection, backed vociferously by Claire Perry MP.

Perry, who has now been appointed Cameron's adviser on preventing the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood collected over 100,000 signatures to back her plan.

However, a majority of parents responding to a UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) consultation rejected the idea of a default block.

Critics have also questioned the effectiveness of such a measure.

Proactive (and prompting) parents

The big problem is that default filtering risked "over-blocking" potentially stopped children accessing websites that provided "helpful information on sexual health or sexual identity, issues which young people may want information on but find difficult to talk to their parents about."

There were also concerns that a system such as this did not deal with harms such as bullying, personal abuse, grooming or other forms of exploitation.

It could also lead parents into a false sense of security and not encourage them to engage with children about the issues they faced.

Considering the results, the DfE firmly rejected plans for a default block on all adult content at a network level, leaving Perry and her campaigners disappointed.

The Government preferred parents to be encouraged to take a much more active role in their children's online safety.

In his Daily Mail piece, Cameron backs the Government's response saying: "such a crude system [default filtering] would not work" but then appears to perform an swift U-turn to describe a new system in which "every parent will be prompted to protect their child online."

"If they [parents] don't make choices, protection will be automatically on," he continued.

"No other Government has taken such radical steps before. And once all this is in place, Britain will have the most robust internet child protection measures of any country in the world - bar none."

Protecting kids online
Simple steps to protect your kids:
  • If a device has no content filters then supervising children while they use the web is a sensible precaution.
  • Configure a robust set of content filters to block the most unsuitable content.
  • Consider combining a filtering system and proper supervision of internet use for young children.

How will it work?

The key phrase in Cameron's op-ed is "once all this is in place".

Exactly what form the system will take is not yet clear.

So far the only details described by Cameron are that new computers will, when first turned on, ask whether there are any children in the house. If the answer is 'yes', then the parents are prompted to customise internet filters.

This assumes that a parent is the first person that turns on the new computer, but there is also a danger that once set up parents are lulled into a false sense of security.

The DfE is keen to avoid exactly this, it says: "there is a risk that parents might rely on default filtering to protect their children from all potential online harms and not think about how their children might want to use the internet."

In addition, whether this new system will work with tablets and other handheld devices or on systems where the operating system is installed separately is not clear, but certainly important.

With coordination required between Government, ISPs, hardware manufacturers and software designers, critics are asking whether the scheme will manage to get off the ground.

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group told The Independent Cameron's announcement was a, "back-of-the-fag-packet policy reversal announced after the Government's own public consultation decided just a week ago that further filtering wouldn't work."

Taking control

Whilst the debate surrounding whether or not Government should play a part continues, there is consensus about something: no parent wants children accessing unsuitable material online.

The majority of respondents to the DfE consultation said parents were responsible solely for ensuring the safety of their children.

Three proposed solutions put forward in the consultation consisted of: a network level filter, as advocated by Perry and currently deployed on mobile networks; parents choosing which controls they used; or a mixture of the two.

In direct contrast to the approach advocated by Perry, 40% of respondents wanted the enforced approach of the ISPs current code of practice to be removed and nearly 30% of parents responding said they did not need extra help from Government.

The main issues that parents said they wanted most help with were adult content and bullying. The report also recognised that after sexual content, children are more worried about being bullied online than anything else.

It remains unclear how the Government's plans would protect a child against bullying and abuse via social networks unless parents were to ban their children from using these sites altogether.

In the mobile world, network level filters are in place and users have to opt-in to view adult content, however, access to social networking services is unrestricted and this appears to be an area of major concern for parents that Government, at present, appears to have little to offer.

What can Internet Providers offer?

Despite all the activity at Government level, the UKs big four ISPs are not simply sitting idle.

All already offer free parental control software to customers with one, TalkTalk, currently offering a network level filter to its customers.

The benefit of TalkTalk Homesafe is that because the block applies on the server end, all devices sharing an internet connection in the home, whether tablet, PC or smartphone can be controlled.

The downside is that all users in the home are restricted whilst it is in place, which could be frustrating if a website is blacklisted by mistake.

The other three, BT, Virgin Media and Sky offer free software from McAfee or RadialPoint which can be installed on Windows or Mac.

Both Windows and Mac have built in parental control features and other big brand names in online security such as Norton offer free software for parents.

The Government though is keen for ISPs to do more and has asked them to "actively encourage people to switch on parental controls if children are in the house."

ISPs will also be asked to ensure that "appropriate measures" are put in place to check that someone setting up parental controls is over 18.

The policy is still very much a work in progress and there remains some confusion as to what exactly the Government's final plans are, not to mention how they will be achieved.

Parents wanting to protect their kids online should take active steps to do so, all the tools and advice are in place and available for free from ISPs or elsewhere online.