Matt, editor for the broadband comparison website Broadband Genie, offers his opinion on what needs to be done to keep children safe online.
The UK government’s latest efforts at preventing children stumbling across unsuitable web sites has been widely derided as a huge waste of time and effort. Under threat of legislation, they have forced ISPs to implement network filtering that attempts to block sites they have decided are in some way offensive or dangerous.
There are just a few problems with this approach. For one thing, it's laughably ineffective. Even when the filters do work (and they’ve been shown to be far from foolproof) it’s very easy to bypass with a proxy, VPN or simple DNS change. There’s even a Chrome extension designed specifically to access web sites blocked by UK ISP filters. Not the kind of things that are out of reach for today’s tech-savvy kids who grew up with the internet.
There’s also the risk of perfectly legitimate and useful sites being unwittingly caught up in the filter. At their highest setting the filters stop browsers accessing sex education sites, potentially putting kids at risk of harm by preventing them from viewing important educational material. At one point BT’s help pages stated that the sex education category of the filter would include sites “where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion [and] gay and lesbian lifestyle”.
And aside from the child safety concerns, following the revelations of mass spying and data gathering by the NSA, GCHQ and other intelligence agencies there’s good reason to be skeptical about the government having means to block web sites, seemingly with little oversight or recourse. The filter could be used to censor anything they find disagreeable.
What should be worrying parents, though, is that they’re being lulled into a false sense of security by this ineffective half-measure. Many people may think that their children are safe from the internet’s dark side just by clicking the option when it pops up on their screen, while their kids are just browsing as normal. What’s required is education, for both parents and their children.
There are numerous options at their disposal which can already do a better job than an ISP filter. Free software such as K9 Web Protection can be used to censor unsuitable sites, restrict online time and provide activity reports so parents can closely monitor usage, even on mobile devices, while router security options can block access to sites across your entire home network. And kids should be made aware of the real risks that can come from careless net access, including good security practice, social media privacy and the legal implications that can arise from improper use of the internet.
It’s not the government’s place to act as a guardian and decide what we can and cannot do in our own homes. Rather than throwing out a far-reaching net with gaping holes that does little to solve the problem parents need to be equipped with the tools and knowledge to secure their broadband connection and attached devices as they deem necessary.