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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 11:42 GMT
Why the web is not a safety net
We need to keep kids safe online, agrees technology analyst Bill Thompson, but we cannot just do what the children's charities want.

Two children using the internet, BBC
Not all children stay safe when using the net
According to Ofcom, which has a regulatory interest in such things, there are around 5.3 million broadband users in the UK and the number is rising by tens of thousands each week.

This is good news indeed for the backers of Broadband Britain, but the impact of a high-speed always-on net connection on our daily lives may not always be as positive as they would hope.

After all, broadband at home means that schoolchildren doing their homework are likely to have a chat session running at the same time as they search Google for information about Hamburg.

And using a webcam or exchanging digital photos is lot faster and easier when you ditch dial-up.

Taking risks

There is a vast amount of research to indicate that children engage in dangerous behaviour online.

They chat to strangers, divulge email and postal addresses, send photos to people they do not know very well, expose personal information and even arrange to meet online friends in the real world.

And they can do it a lot faster and more easily over broadband.

It is not only home broadband that should worry us, of course. Mobile phones with cameras are commonplace, and e-mail, web access and even chat are all possible with the newest models.

As a parent with two net-using children I should therefore welcome this week's publication of "Child Safety Online", a digital manifesto from CHIS - the Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety.

Every time a child is abused it is a tragedy, and we cannot fail to take steps to reduce the chance of this happening.

But the arguments about child safely online seem to be dominated by the children's charities, who have a very specific and understandable focus on protecting children and far less concern with protecting the internet.

Bill Thompson
Creating a sense of moral panic and taking away our civil liberties 'for the sake of the children' is not the way forward.
Child abuse, in all its forms, is abhorrent and we must act to stop it happening, and prevent those who carry it out from doing so in future.

But we must not overstate the net's role in child abuse and we must not take wrong or ineffective action just because we are bounced into it by campaigners who choose not to see both sides of the argument.

As a parent I fear for my children, but I also accept that they take risks in all areas of their lives.

This week my son played his first rugby match for his school team, and he was battered and bruised afterwards. Tonight my daughter will be researching homework online and may encounter a potential abuser.

Sanitised system

I do not want Max to stop playing rugby, and nor do I want the net to be controlled, restricted and sanitised so that it presents no risk to thirteen-year olds.

Some of the proposals in the CHIS manifesto would do just that.

For example, they call for the "cyber equivalent of the Indecent Displays Act", which would require any content not suitable for children to be labelled and for publishers to "require proof that the person looking at the material was an adult".

But it is a short line from requiring adult content to be labelled to saying that all content should be rated, at which point any uncategorised content is, by definition, unsafe and unacceptable.

It also relies too much on filtering technology, but that cannot provide an adequate solution to this problem.

Agreeing which sites to block is next to impossible, and children are very good at finding ways around limits put on their online activity by their parents.

So asking for filters to be pre-installed, as the CHIS manifesto does, is both technologically na´ve and doomed to be ineffective.

Many of the initiatives supposed to make us safer sacrifice the freedom of all for very uncertain gains.

Twickenham rugby ground, BBC
A lot of things that children do involve risk
Earlier this year BT launched Cleanfeed, which blocks access to websites believed to contain illegal images of child abuse. It is a good example of the sort of online vigilantism that has replaced real policy-making and law enforcement in this area

The list is drawn up by the Internet Watch Foundation, a self-appointed watchdog, but there is no judicial review of what it does, and no guarantee that the list is complete, correct or up-to-date.

And BT does not even have enough confidence in what it is doing to inform customers that they are visiting a banned site, choosing instead to display an "error 404: file not found" message to their users.

Until they change the policy and show blocked sites for what they are instead of hiding behind this fake "not found" page, they will never gain acceptance for what they are doing from the wider net community.

I am not arguing for a libertarian, unregulated internet. I believe that the law should apply online just as it does offline. But creating a sense of moral panic and taking away our civil liberties "for the sake of the children" is not the way forward.

I asked my daughter what she would recommend, and she was quite clear about it.

Putting up websites full of safety tips will not help because the kids at risk will not visit them; blocking access will not work because new tools and techniques will get around them; and issuing leaflets for kids to take home from school is pointless as they never make it outside the school gate.

She believes that net safety should be a central part of the ICT teaching she gets at school, from reception onwards, and that teachers are the ones to show children what is safe and what is not.

That way it is unavoidable, it does not rely on parents who may not bother, know or be able to explain, and it becomes part of the general awareness of life that you pick up in school.

This is not such a bad idea. What's more, it equips children to become net-using adults instead of trying the make the net a child-only space.

It's not the only thing we should be doing, but training teachers might make more of a difference than spending money on child awareness websites, frightening people with tales of online abduction, or passing laws that damage the net and help nobody.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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