a little east of reality

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

parental responsibility and the internet

Our new Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has pledged to provide porn-free internet feeds to schools and homes. He wants the Communications and Media Authority to draw up a blacklist of unsuitable websites, which internet service providers will then be required to block to their customers unless they specifically request an uncensored feed.

I think this is a great idea for schools and a very bad idea for households. At school one teacher may be in charge of 40 students at one time. They cannot be expected to watch every student all the time in a computer class, yet the school does have a legal responsibility to control what information children are exposed to in school. The same way that a book of pornography should never make it's way into a school library, so too, a school needs to make some realistic attempt to filter the internet content to which students have access. I also think that limited access to computer labs means that there is less time for children to be using the net unsupervised or for those who know how to hack through filters.

Households are a different matter. It is a parent's responsibility to know and control (certainly within their own home) what their children read and view. They might use filtering programs themselves, but shouldn't be relying on them. It is also their responsibility to teach their children about internet predators the same way that they teach them stranger danger before they let them walk to school on their own. Internet dangers are a reality of our life and the government can't solve all our woes. In fact, I agree with this morning's Sydney Morning Herald editorial that trying to filter out all objectionable material will simply give parents a false sense of security that their parental responsibilities to ensure that their children are not viewing objectionable material on the net have been taken over by a body with the power to ensure that nothing gets through.

The problem with a blacklist is that websites are easily created to replace those on it, creating a constant battle to keep the list accurately updated. Also while the most objectionable material might be blocked, such a filter lets through a lot of other kinds of pornograghy (eg showing acts that are legal between consenting adults in this country, suggestive online dating advertisements, and other content not suitable for children. Parents relying on government blocking (or net nanny programs for that matter) are just fooling themselves. They would be much better off following more practical rules for children's net usage, such as keeping the internet connection in a public area of the house (computers in child's own room don't have to be connected to the net) and monitoring kids' email (thinking particularly of young kids here). I heard about a guy who unplugs and hides the modem every night so that his teenagers can't access the net during the night. He knows it makes him look untrusting and over-protective, but he doesn't care, because he's more focused on the way the internet is being used by people who view teenagers as prey, and he understands that teenagers often think they are more world-savvy than they actually are.

Given that the internet industry has suggested it would take the average tech-savvy young person about two minutes to get around the system Senator Conroy is proposing (the net filter distributed by the Communications and Media Authority last year was defeated by a sixteen year old (Tom Wood, pictured) in about half an hour), I don't think giving parents a false free pass to ignore their children's net usage is realistic or kind to the children in question. Better to spend the money on increased Australian Federal Police resources to pursue child-porn rings and on educating parents about home-based filters and activity monitors.

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