net.wars: Child's Play
by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 01 May 2010
In the TV show The West Wing (Season 6, Episode 17, "A Good Day")young teens tackle the president: why shouldn't they have the right to vote? There's probably no chance, but they made their point: as a society we trust kids very little and often fail to take them or their interests seriously.
The general market has not adopted this recommendation; but it has been implemented with respect to the free laptops issued to low-income families under Becta's £300 million Home Access Laptop scheme, announced last year as part of efforts to bridge the digital divide. The recipients – 70,000 to 80,000 so far – have a choice of supplier, of ISP, and of hardware make and model. However, the laptops must meet a set of functional technical specification, one of which is compliance with PAS 74:2008, the British Internet safety standard. That means anti-virus, access control, and filtering software NetIntelligence.
Naturally, there are complaints; these fall precisely in line with the general problems with filtering software, which have changed little since 1996, when the passage of the Communications Decency Act inspired 17-year-old Bennett Haselton to start Peacefire to educate kids about the inner working of blocking software – and how to bypass it. Briefly:
Kids are often better at figuring out ways around the filters than their parents are, giving parents a false sense of security.
This case looks similar – at first. Various reports claim that straight out of the box, NetIntelligence blocks social networking sites and even Google and Wikipedia, as well as Google's Chrome browser because the way Chrome installs allows the user to bypass the filters.
NetIntelligence says the Chrome issue is only temporary; the company expects a fix within three weeks. Marc Kelly, the company's channel manager, also notes that the laptops that were blocking sites like Google and Wikipedia were misconfigured by the supplier. "It was a manufacturer and delivery problem," he says; once the software has been reinstalled correctly, "The product does not block anything you do not want it to." Other technical support issues -trouble finding the password, for example – are arguably typical of new users struggling with unfamiliar software and inadequate technical support from their retailer.
Both Becta and NetIntelligence stress that parents can reconfigure or uninstall the software even if some are confused about how to do it. First, they must first activate the software by typing in the code the vendor provides; that gets them password access to change the blocking list or uninstall the software.
The simple reaction is to denounce filtering software and all who sail in her – censorship! – but the Internet is arguably now more complicated than that. Research Becta conducted on the pilot group found that 70 percent of the parents surveyed felt that the built-in safety features were very important. Even the most technically advanced of parents struggle to balance their legitimate concerns in protecting their children with the complex reality of their children's lives.
Technorati tags: censorship filtering safety children
Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).