Policing the internet


Despite reluctance only a week ago, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte yesterday said, yes, he will consider approaching internet providers to get their help curbing the accessibility of online pornography to children. Responding to calls in the Seanad and from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and to the announcement of new measures by UK prime minister David Cameron, Mr Rabbitte said that he “would be quite happy to [examine] whether the initiative announced by Prime Minister Cameron has merit and can be made to work, and whether the ISPs [internet service providers] that are largely different here than they are in Britain would enter a similar protocol.”

Stormont Justice Minister David Ford yesterday also promised that Northern Ireland will not be left behind on internet porn control.

Mr Cameron’s initiative has involved persuading the UK’s four largest ISPs voluntarily to introduce as standard software filters that parents would have to switch off to access “mainstream”, legal pornography online. The “opt-in” will come as standard when new “family friendly” WiFi services are installed, and gradually all 19 million households subscribing to broadband will be offered a similar choice.

The prime minister is also, and somewhat confusingly, stepping up the campaign against the illegal dissemination and possession of child abuse material – ISPs already signal to those who search for words like “child sex” through a “stop page” that they have strayed into prohibited territory, and are working hard to close down illegal sites when they are reported. Companies like Google have been given until October to introduce yet new search filters or face legal requirements to do so.

But expanding blacklists of search words will not deal with the real problem that much of such material is on secret peer-to-peer paedophile sharing sites, not open to searching.

The challenge involved in dealing with the child/teenage audience for legal pornography is very different and probably as difficult to suppress. Surveys suggest that almost one in seven children have been exposed to sexually explicit images and in the US teenagers typically spend up to two hours a week of their 31 online viewing pornography. Apart from the fact that software filters may block access to worthwhile or anodyne material, many, if not most, children are far more adept than their parents at dealing with the technology on their multiple internet access points – circumventing filters is just another small hurdle, a challenge, to the curious in search of the tantalisingly forbidden.

Yet even if filters are imperfect, circumventable tools, better some defence against the tide than none? No substitute, however, for parents getting their own tech upgrading and eternal vigilance, however intrusive it may appear.

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