The UK government has given a lot of attention in recent years to how we can best protect our children online. This started with a series of government sponsored reviews on the issues - Safer children in a digital world (March 2008), Do we have safer children in a digital world? (March 2010) and Letting children be children (June 2011) - and the creation of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS). The government has also undertaken extensive consultation with industry, law enforcement agencies, the academic world and charitable agencies. Its overall position on children's online safety can be found in The government's response to the consultation on parental controls.
Clearly, filtering pornographic content is only part of the problem. But it's probably the most obvious aspect of children's online safety and is certainly the one that has attracted the most coverage in the media.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed that the default setting on all internet-connected devices should be to have porn filters switched on as standard, making porn inaccessible. Those who wish to view it, as is their legal right, still can; but they will have to specifically opt in with their internet service provider (ISP).
The idea of using porn filters is not new - ISPs, device manufacturers and network operators all provide them - but the current default setting is typically that they are switched off so that all content can be accessed.
The debate matters
The debate over what the default filter setting should be is a legitimate one. On the one hand, privacy activists argue that the new opt-in approach would block access to content that is in fact perfectly legal and would be like wanting to go for a walk in the park but having to seek out the park-keeper to answer a range of questions before being presented with a key to the locked gates. In addition, the measures could result in other content, such as medical or educational information, also being blocked. In others words, it might not be just the local park that is declared out of bounds, but the shop and tennis court too.
Aside from the potential embarrassment of having to ask 'permission' to view porn, there is a concern about what might be done with the information on who had opted in or out. Could it be requested by police investigating a sex crime? Could details of those who opt in to view porn be held on a list that is somehow leaked to the press? Or could such a database be stolen by cybercriminals? Others argue that even when filters are used, they are often ineffective because anyone determined to access porn can do so, for example by using an alternative browser (such as the recently released Pirate Browser) that circumvents filtered and blocked illegal content. This would, of course, also apply to content that is illegal.
For many, however, the inconvenience the new default settings might present to a mature adult is outweighed by the need to protect the young from accidental exposure to inappropriate content. Our research has shown that children can be just three clicks away from age-inappropriate material when they view a children's YouTube clip - unless filters have not been applied by parents.
But maybe the outcome isn't as important as we think
However, the result of the debate - whether the default setting for new devices or services is filters-on or filters-off - isn't the whole story. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia and an advisor on the debate, argues that it is more important to devote resources to apprehending those creating and accessing illegal content, such as child pornography.
Moreover, the controls to limit or prevent access to porn already exist and can be customised. For example, a parent or guardian can install internet security software that allows them to set up separate (password protected) profiles for devices used by their children. They can set up comprehensive access for adults, limited access for teenagers and restricted access for the youngest members of the family. They can set time limits when the computer can be used, or when children can access the Internet. They can filter specific geographic domain names (.cn or, .ru, for example), restrict access to forums, social networks, specific sites and even certain online functions such as the ability to make purchases.
Debate highlights choice
Whatever the outcome of the debate, technology can't replace parenting. And the greatest benefit of the debate is, to my mind, that it is raising awareness among parents and guardians about the risks and the protection already available to frame children's online experience in a safe way.
The issue isn't restricted to desktop PCs. If you own any device that connects to the internet - a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone - you should check the filters that are available - from the handset manufacturer, the network operator, the ISP or a security vendor and how to use them in a way that works best for you and your family.
Last but not least, it is important to complement the technology with an open dialogue. Having internet filters on does not absolve parents or the government from any responsibility. It is still just as important to talk to children about how to avoid dangers online. This discussion should start as soon as they pick up a device and continue as they get older and their needs change. Filters alone cannot protect them; education continues to be the most important defence against online threats.