By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, APRIL 27, 2012 (Zenit.org).- In England on April 16 the final report of a cross-party Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection was published. It concluded that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the government need to do more to keep children safe online.
The backbench Tory behind the study, Claire Perry, demanded that Internet providers offer parents a simple way of filtering out adult content.
“Our inquiry found that many children are easily accessing Internet pornography as well as Web sites showing extreme violence or promoting self-harm and anorexia,” she told the BBC on April 18.
The report began by praising the many benefits the Internet has, but noting that there are also downsides, ever more evident as the Internet has evolved into an “always-on” presence in our lives.
Many in the Internet industry, the report noted, say it is best for controls or filters to be installed on individual computers, rather than at the level of ISPs, but these device-level filters have limitations and many parents do not use them. Use of these filters has dropped by 10% in the last three years and now almost six in 10 children have unlimited access.
As a result more and more children are stumbling upon, or seeking out, pornographic material. The average age at which a child starts to use the Internet in the UK is 8 and most access it alone.
One 2008 survey found that 27% of boys were viewing pornography every week. Another study found that a quarter of young people had received unsolicited porn junk mail or instant messages.
Both public opinion polls and witnesses before the inquiry expressed serious concern over the ease of access to pornography and the often violent and degrading images available. As well, in recent times the amount of free explicit content has increased greatly.
Witnessed told the inquiry that the regular use of pornographic material desensitizes children and young people to violent or sexually aggressive acts and reduces their inhibitions, making them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In addition, exposure to pornography leads young people to early sexual involvement.
In other areas of the media, government and private industry work together to protect children, through such means as film ratings and advertising standards, but the report lamented, with the Internet any proposal to regulate content before the point of delivery is attacked as censorship.
Some positive steps have been taken, the report explained. From October this year the four largest British ISPs have agreed to implement new controls where the consumer must actively choose whether to install device-level filters as part of an account sign up process.
While this is a step in the right direction the report observed that nine out of 10 children live in homes that already have Internet access and the companies have not detailed plans to offer this filter to existing customers.
Moreover, it does not protect all the devices through which the Internet can be accessed. Mobile phones, games consoles, portable media players, and e-readers, can all access the Internet and each one of these in a home would require its own filter.
In addition, according to the report many parents find device filters difficult to install and maintain, and can be outsmarted by the more tech-savvy children.
The inquiry also found that devices are not sold with safety settings switched on as a default, and that retailers do not ask if the computers or Internet-enabled devices they are selling are to be used by children or provide information on security settings.
New system needed
A new approach is needed, the report stated. It proposed an “opt-in” system through which customers could choose to receive pornographic content, thus preserving consumer choice, but would otherwise provide clean Internet content, thus protecting children.
Such a system is already in place for mobile phones in Britain, with most companies blocking adult content until age verification check has established the customer is over 18 years of age.
Network filters, which are only offered by one British ISP, TalkTalk, protect all devices sharing an Internet connection and improve protection for children.
A single account network filter applies filters for an individual account level so that each device connected to a single Internet connection is covered by the same settings. Such systems are already in place in many businesses and in schools.
There is no evidence, the report stated, that an opt-in model would slow Internet speeds and the main objections to its use seem to be “ideological” it added.
Another form of filter is whole-network filters that excludes content to all accounts collectively serviced by ISPs, but the report said there needs to be more study of this option.
A number of other measures were also recommended by the report. These include improved Internet safety education, filtering of public Wi-Fi services, and a new regulatory structure for online content. It remains to be seen whether the government will implement the inquiry’s recommendations.