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Kindle - Porn Slipping in Under the Radar

Posted: 08/05/2012 00:00

Hoping to encourage the habit of reading large numbers parents have been buying Kindles for their children. I know of at least one very famous public school where almost every modern gizmo is frowned upon, but not the Kindle. It is applauded.

Kindles are internet enabled. They can connect either using built in WiFi or 3G. However, until recently I had thought the slender slab was only able to reach a single destination on the internet. That was Amazon's "Kindle Store" where all you could then do was download books. Doubtless the great majority of the solicitous Mums and Dads thought likewise. We were wrong. Wrong on several counts.

For one thing Kindles have Google's search engine incorporated into them. When I entered a couple of not-hard-to-guess search terms immediately I was presented with a long list of porn sites. Clicking on them took me to their home pages. These contained images which were extremely graphic, hard core.

Not Technicolor but...

The images were 'only' black and white stills but I'm afraid the detail was unmistakeable and unavoidable. I made my virtual excuses and left. The Kindle would not play any of the many free pornographic videos that were also on offer. This is because the device can only handle a limited range of file formats but no way should any images of the kind I saw have been available via this route. What was Amazon thinking? Perhaps it wasn't.

I say this not least because the situation could have been very easily avoided. Google search comes in three flavours: no filtering, moderate filtering and "strict". Had Google search been set as strict no porn would have been able to get through and I would probably not be writing this blog.

No one could have any objection in principle to Kindle providing Google search on their e-book readers. I can see its potential usefulness. But in the circumstances I can see no justification at all for Google being on without it being set to strict by default.

What about other e-book readers?

I decided I ought to see if the Kindle was alone among e-book readers in allowing this kind of access. I didn't want to have to buy all of them to take to my (non-existent) computer laboratory so I went into a major branch of PC World hoping to be able to check them out there. I was defeated by the company's policy of installing filters and blocks! Entirely laudable and more than a little ironic in the circumstances.

Since I couldn't complete my research in the way I originally intended I turned to speak to one of the store's sales staff. I told him I was a parent thinking about buying an e-book reader for one of my children but I was keen to know beforehand if I needed to install any controls to block access to unsuitable adult content. The salesman assured me there was no need to have content controls of any kind on a Kindle or indeed on any of the other e-book readers because they were "only e-book readers". PC World staff trainers please note.

A portal to porn?

When anyone thinks about a Kindle I'm guessing they tend to think about the generally wholesome benefits of books. OK, I know "books" can take you to many different places but what won't spring into people's minds when they think about a Kindle is a portable portal to porn. I mean it's not as if there is a huge shortage of other ways of finding porn online. Does it also have to be bundled as part of a package and linked to a device which ostensibly has and is sold as having quite a different purpose? This is a clear example of porn slipping in under the radar.

If the availability of porn through a Kindle was more widely known parents might think twice about buying one and handing it over to a child. Thus, until this situation changes, at the very least Amazon needs to do a lot more to make sure parents who might be buying Kindles for their children are aware that this functionality exists.

Moreover, if Amazon won't set the default on Google search to strict it should at least be possible for users to change the settings to that status. Right now it isn't. Take a look at the Kindle user guide or Kindle's general help page. In it you will find nada. Zilch. Niente on the subject.

I read the manual

I struggled on and did what no self-respecting techie would ever normally do (so please don't tell anyone): I read the manual, the user guide referred to above. On page 10 it tells you how to make images on your Kindle larger, but it doesn't tell you how to make them disappear. Hey ho.

Page 12 of the user guide is called "Getting more from your Kindle". It tells you how to "customize" your Kindle's settings. Sadly this "customization" does not extend to explaining how you might customize pornographic or other undesirable web sites out of the Kindle altogether.

I abandoned the user guide and resorted to direct action. By messing around with my Kindle a bit more I did eventually discover a way to turn off access to images. This took a while and more than a little nerdy determination. It shouldn't have. Information about how to do this ought to be presented prominently.

However, while being able to turn off access to images is good with porn sites it is not only the images which give offence. A great deal of the associated text is highly objectionable, and most assuredly it is unsuitable for children.

Amazon's one-click system

When I was researching this story I came across a great deal of online discussion in the USA about Kindles providing access to inappropriate content. It was not so much the Google angle that people talked about over there, although that was mentioned in a small number of cases. In America people were getting hot under the collar about Amazon selling porn via the Kindle. Selling porn indiscriminately to anyone.

Selling books was Amazon's original or core business. The Kindle is first and foremost a way of doing just that. The hardware is heavily subsidised precisely in order to entice people into buying one in the expectation they will subsequently start splashing the literary cash.

Of course we all speak to our children about them needing our permission to do various things, or about the importance of them speaking to us before they embark on a particular course of action, but in real life it doesn't always work out that way. Amazon should be helping parents not acting as co-conspirators in undermining their authority.

There was some chat in a number of US online forums I visited about disabling Kindle's WiFi or 3G access, or de-registering the Kindle so nothing new could be bought, but these were put forward as inspired "work arounds" that people had conjured up themselves. It ought not to be that hard. At the very least Amazon should have anticipated that parents might like the option of disallowing the purchase of certain categories of books until they reach the age of 18 or earlier if that seems appropriate.

This sorry saga illustrates once again how hardware manufacturers and software developers far too often simply do not consider the child safety dimension of what they are doing. They don't think things through, or if they do they come to entirely the wrong conclusions. Oddly enough, though, these lapses almost invariably err on the side of income maximisation, for them that is. They rarely make a mistake which results in their revenues being reduced.

It's all about seamless safety

Parents should not have to worry when they buy any new internet enabled device for their children that they need to start jumping through complicated hoops to render it as safe as it can be. We need seamless safety. A common bottom line.

If a gadget can be connected to the internet the defaults should be family friendly, child friendly from the very beginning. Belt and braces, ISPs and WiFi providers likewise should make the internet connections they supply family friendly, child friendly by default. Yes the defaults on all or most devices and connections should be capable of being changed to allow adults to access any legal material. I am not in favour of censorship.

But I am even less in favour of commercially-driven or any other kind of enterprise robbing children of their innocence by exposing them to some of the materials which are all too readily available in cyberspace.

 

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