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Column: Online pornography – Ireland should give parents a choice

Children are being exposed to sexual material online. A simple opt-in filter would help protect them without stifling web freedom, writes Pat McKenna.

Image: Steve White/The Canadian Press/Press Association Images

A new report reveals that one in five children has seen dangerous content online, with almost one in seven having been exposed to sexual images. Here Pat McKenna argues that Ireland should follow the UK and give parents the choice with an automatic filter.

A DEBATE IS ongoing in the UK regarding proposed measures that would have internet service providers (ISPs) use software filters to block internet access to pornography as well as other websites showing extreme violence or promoting self-harm and anorexia.

From a parent’s perspective, what the UK are advocating is simple: if you want to allow pornographic and other material available through your ISP into your home, then simply opt in through a phone call, or more likely an online form. And if you do not want such a facility, then do nothing and allow the filter to apply.

This comes on the back of increasing awareness through studies and interaction with parents groups that there is much concern that children are encountering or directly seeking to access pornography on the internet.

The four largest UK ISPs, in an industry valued annually at $4.7billion, have voluntarily pledged to make home access to pornography an ‘active choice’ for their consumers from later this year.

But if there is one word that drives everyone into one corner or another when considering controls on the internet, it is ‘censorship’. This is the entry point for all kinds of superheated exchanges between those who seek to regulate access to internet content, and those who believe that the internet should be a completely ‘hands-off’ sacred cow where anyone can access anything without restriction.

The UK already employs filters to restrict access to CAM (child abuse material), aka child pornography, on the internet. A UK-based ISP consumer selecting a link that takes them to a site containing sexually abusive or exploitive images of children that is unlawful under UK law will be presented with a ‘stop page’ that clearly indicates that access to the site is blocked. Mobile operators also use filtering technology for the same purpose.

‘Mainstream’ pornography

But blocking access to the type of sites of concern here – ‘mainstream’ pornography – is going to be a major undertaking, simply because there is so much of that material out there. And so it is argued that such a filter will end up blocking content from all manner of websites, some of whom may have other related content.

An important debate concerns what will be blocked, and what will not. The image of a nude person being disciplined in an S&M scene is straightforward enough – but what about a social networking site with holiday photos containing partial or full nudity? What if the same site has a page belonging to someone who likes bondage and has pictures on their profile of such acts, or a graphic page for an escort agency?

However, this classification process is not new, and the many software products that are commercially (and in some cases freely) available for blocking content on individual devices commonly found in homes have long experience of making these classifications.

It is these home-oriented software products that opponents of internet ‘censorship’ advocate to block this material, in place of a sweeping ‘all encompassing’ filter that universally stops access at the ISP level. This is partially because for the ISP to implement this filter will involve effort and resources (and of course cost).

The problem is that the majority of parents do not understand technology very well and are stomped by material that gets in any way technical regarding filtering content, DNS settings etc. And then there is the issue of the number of internet enabled devices in the home to consider: everything from the Xbox to the PC to the Nintendo DSI. The desktop PC solution that works with MS Windows won’t cover devices with other operating systems so those devices will not be covered, unless something like OpenDNS is used at the level of the external home router.

Do filters work?

But my wife, like many people, can just about turn on a computer and the chance of her configuring OpenDNS on the external router are somewhere between nil and null. If my children are sitting in front of the TV where there has been regulation for years, she has a comfort factor that Caligula will not air at 2pm, or 8pm for that matter. But new and multiple operating systems on different home internet devices are beyond the comprehension of many users. The idea that the TVs in our home could be used to view streamed internet content scares the hell out of my wife, and rightly so.

A spokesperson from the London School of Economics who originated an EU wide study into children’s internet usage said that we didn’t have studies to accurately determine the degree to which encountering this content really affected children one way on the other. That will never happen because you would have to sit a couple of thousand children down and expose them to porn, S&M etc, and go through a questionnaire and evaluation to determine a measurable outcome. In the meantime I’m guessing that most parents and guardians wouldn’t be happy to find children accessing this material. Do we really need a study to figure out everything?

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Do filters work? The answer is a qualified yes, and a qualified no. If someone is determined to circumvent an internet filter then absolutely they can do it. Google provide a lot of filtering options in their products to give parents choices in what can be returned in a search and they know a bit about this subject. So when they came out recently and criticised the UK government’s initiative I was interested to read why.

Google’s head of public policy, Sarah Hunter, said an ISP filter would “de-skill” parents and give them a “false sense of security”. I had reason to meet with Google in the past to assist in their understanding of how some of their ads were appearing on undesirable web pages so I know how hard that they work in this area. The ‘de-skill’ argument is just plain silly. Why shouldn’t parents be able to benefit from the millions of dollars invested by Google and other security companies in research and development in this area by benefiting from a universal filter maintained by such expertise, and available to simply switch on, or switch off?

What could be simpler?

The UK government is not advocating that all legal adult pornography should be completely switched off in some ‘Great Wall of UK’ internet filter, and any comparison between what the UK are advocating and what China is doing is simply ridiculous. As I have said, what the UK are advocating is simple: if you want to allow pornographic and other material into your home, then simply opt-in. And if you do not want such a facility, then do nothing.

So where is the end of civilisation as we know it in that proposal? Why shouldn’t parents in Ireland have access to this facility if it can be achieved in our nearest neighbour? With our current Minister for Justice I would see it as a possibility, but it won’t happen without a vicious struggle.

The issue has been taken up by the Irish Senate where Alan Shatter made a statement indicating that he would fully consider legislating to force Irish ISPs to filter out CAM for Irish consumers.

I believe that he must go a little further and legislate to force our ISPs to provide Irish parents and guardians with an opt-in/opt-out filter to help better protect children, as is proposed by the UK.

Pat McKenna is the director of Childwatch Ireland, which runs workshops and consultancy programmes on child protection issues online.

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