OPINION: Will censoring the Internet stop child exploitation?

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NOTE: I got to put my thoughts to John Carr directly when I was invited to debate the issues raised on the JVS Show on BBC Three Counties radio on Monday morning. Here is the link to listen again. We come on at the 1 hour mark… I think the link is only live for seven days so grab it while it’s hot!

Yesterday government advisor on child Internet safety, John Carr, called for search engines like Google to do more to restrict access to online pornography. Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live he said that hard core porn sites are “one of the key routes that guys get to child pornography in the first place” and that there was “no question” that some men who look at child sex abuse images go on to carry out abuse.

But would censoring searches really stop paedophiles accessing child sex abuse images?

I think this is a very naïve proposition. But more than that it is dangerous to be spewing rhetoric like this to a public that feels the need to evoke some kind of affirmative action in the wake of the terrible murder of April Jones, for which a monster was sentenced to true-life in prison earlier this week.

First of all there are over 17 billion pages on the indexed web and Google alone handled 1.2 trillion search queries in 2012. There is no way a search company could have a human filtering system, so we would have to rely on computer algorithms to do the job instead. Now, computers are very good at sifting through huge piles of data, but what they don’t do so well is the nuance of context. We see it in multiplayer online environments where chat filters are used to censor profanities but it’s like using a sledge hammer to crack a nut as these will also block words like Scunthorpe.

I know of at least one social site aimed at children that blocks the words rape, kill and cum – which of course are inappropriate words for minors to be using – but the filter also stops them using words like grape, skills and cucumber.

Besides this, how long do you think it would take organised child abuse networks to devise a new and seemingly innocent set of search terms? In some ways this could be even more dangerous to our children who could search for those perfectly innocuous words and come across highly disturbing images completely by chance.

According to this BBC article Carr himself said that one of the “key routes” paedophiles used to find content was through adverts containing “code words” that are placed on legal hard core pornography sites. So what exactly would throttling Google do to prevent that?

We need to rely on education instead of prohibition. The government and mainstream media need to realise that Google and a handful of ISPs are not “the Internet” and ultimately driving paedophiles underground will only be unhelpful in the long run.

I’ve spoken at a lot of schools about online safety and so thought I would share with you a couple of links that might help put your mind at rest regards the safety of your own children. But please; let’s not work ourselves up into a blind fury aimed at all the wrong people. Google has a very active zero tolerance policy on child sexual abuse, as do pretty much all reputable tech companies. Censoring the Internet will not stop child abuse, it will only impinge on the freedoms of innocent people, so don’t let the horrific news we’ve been reading this week be used as an excuse to revive the snoopers charter and other civil liberty smashing policy ideas.

Resources for safety

www.saferinternet.org.uk

This is a great starting place for parents and carers, with dedicated sections explaining all of the connected technology their children might be using and how to set up parental control on mainstream service providers such as BT, Sky, Talk Talk and Virgin Media.  There are also sections for young people and educators, as well as a helpline and plenty of support if you think there may be a problem.

www.k9webprotection.com

K9 Web Protection is very popular parental control software that is free to home users. It has many protection features like blocked web categories, time restriction, website exception and more.

www.safefamilies.org

We-Blocker is a free download from safefamilies.org that as well as detailed filtering options allows parents to control how long their children use the computer, and for what tasks.

www.chatshield.com

With so many kids using chat clients, Chatshield for Windows Live Messenger is a must-have as it automatically checks all instant messaging and stops any unidentifiable contacts making a connection. The software is free for home users.

Monitoring

Keyloggers are invisible programmes that record the activity on a keyboard so that a parent can see what has been typed. If you’re worried a child isn’t talking to you about problems online then this could be the answer. Many virus checkers and firewalls will pick up the installation as a Trojan virus, because they behave in the exact same way as a malicious key-logger used to mine personal data by criminals – but the ones recommended below are installed and controlled by YOU, not a hacker! Run in stealth mode and people using the computer will not even know it is there.

www.actualkeylogger.com

www.refog.com

Both these downloads are free and allow you to see what has been typed and what programme was running – for example email, chat client, web page etc.

www.cybermentors.org.uk

Sometimes children might not feel like they can talk to a parent or teacher about concerns. Run by a UK charity, this site houses a community where children can get support and advice from other children, as well as trained professionals – whether they are experiencing problems online or out in the physical world. The young volunteers who make up the cybermentor fellowship have all been trained by the charity to be the first port of call for those who feel they can’t talk about problems with a grown up just yet.

6 Comments

  1. Kate Russell says:

    Keith Milner on Google+ posted this link to my comments, which I thought was worth sharing if you want to do more reading to balance the frenzy around John Carr’s statements this week: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/brendanoneill2/100219494/campaigners-who-blame-online-porn-for-child-murders-are-letting-paedophiles-off-the-hook/

  2. Mark says:

    This knee jerk reaction is typical of governments that are completely out of touch with reality. I know parents who blindly use computers, tablets etc as babysitters, completely unsupervised. You try to tell them the dangers but invariably they shrug their shoulders and say ‘well, sooner they get to know the good & bad side of the web, the better’!! Not idea parenting.
    No matter what filtering is put in place, people will find a way to access the content they want, unless of course, the UK government goes the route of Iran & literally isolates the UK’s web to purely UK content?
    It’s a slippery road they’ve started down & I hope it doesn’t happen.

  3. Kate Russell says:

    This latest move by Cameron is just grandstanding for votes from people who fear/don’t understand the Internet. This article is revealing when it comes to what else might be blocked http://torrentfreak.com/uk-porn-filter-will-censor-other-content-too-isps-reveal-130726/

    If you want to sign a petition against it go here: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/51746

  4. Kate Russell says:

    In answer to those on Twitter asking why I am against the porn filter…

    1. It won’t work…
    2. The money would be better spent educating people…
    3. Parents who don’t understand the Internet might consider that children can be left unsupervised on the web because the filters will keep them safe… Instead of the government forcing ISPs to do the parenting, let’s give actual parents the knowledge they need to keep their children safe!
    4. As Mark said above, it is a slippery slope.

    • Martin says:

      Good point, I note that you can’t read newspaper articles that contain words like porn on many free public wifi networks, they get blocked, so that is already censorship of a sort.

      Additionally, how tempting for a government to then expand the list of banned words (for security purposes naturally) to try to block embarrassing information or stories getting out. We all remember the farce over the Spycatcher book from 25 years or so ago where we were the only country in the world where the book was banned!!!

      How long before other countries start wanting their own things banned? for example anything to do with abortion in Ireland or Aids or homosexuality in many Catholic or Muslim countries.

      I note Andy Burnham or his staff keep trying to delete comments in his Wikipedia entry about his involvement in the NHS scandals. How long before Wikipedia just gets blocked?

      The politicians have been very clever to mix up ‘child porn’ with ‘legal porn’ and what children should or should not be able to see.

      So just how does Cameron regulate homes where mum and dad might have some ‘legal’ adult movies in their bedroom or dad or an older brother might have some legal porn mags in the house?

      Most kids will know how to get around blocking filters already as many will want to be able to watch music videos on Youtube that are region locked or watch live US TV streaming and so on.

      Cameron should be more concerned how men like Saville and Stuart Hall were able to work at the BBC for decades abusing children and no one notice.

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