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.

Wendy M Grossman

 That's why it was so refreshing to read in 2008's Byron Review the recommendation that we should consult and listen to children in devising programs to ensure their safety online. Byron made several thoughtful, intelligent analogies: we supervise as kids learn to cross streets, we post warning signs at swimming pools but also teach them to swim.

 She also, more controversially, recommended that all computers sold for home use in the UK should have Kitemarked parental control software "which takes parents through clear prompts and explanations to help set it up and that ISPs offer and advertise this prominently when users set up their connection."

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.
  • Filtering software can't block everything parents expect it to, adding to that false sense of security. 
  • Filtering software is typically overbroad, becoming a vehicle for censorship.
  • There is little or no accountability about what is blocked or the criteria for inclusion. 
  • 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 list of blocked sites, Kelly says, comes from several sources: the Internet Watch Foundation's list and similar lists from other countries; a manual assessment team also reviews sites. Sites that feel they are wrongly blocked should email NetIntelligence support. The company has, he adds, tried to make it easier for parents to implement the policies they want; originally social networks were not broken out into their own category. Now, they are easily unblocked by clicking one button.

    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. 

     For example: will what today's children post to social networks damage their chances of entry into a good university or a job? What will they find? Not just pornography and hate speech; some parents object to creationist sites, some to scary science fiction, others to Fox News. Yesterday's harmless flame wars are today's more serious cyber-bullying and online harassment. We must teach kids to be more resilient, Byron said; but even then kids vary widely in their grasp of social cues, common sense, emotional make-up, and technical aptitude. Even experts struggle with these issues.

     "We are progressively adding more information for parents to help them," says Kelly. "We want the people to keep the product at the end. We don't want them to just uninstall it – we want them to understand it and set the policies up the way they want them." Like all of us, Kelly thinks the ideal is for parents to engage with their children on these issues, "But those are the rules that have come along, and we're doing the best we can." 

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    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).