The only foolproof internet filter


The only foolproof internet filter

I feel bad for Ed Vaizey. First he didn’t support net neutrality, then he decided he did, to the cat-calls of the geek community. Now he’s been tasked by the Conservatives to pick off some of the ripest low-hanging fruit: child safety.

Everyone likes children; everyone hates things that aren’t safe for children. Not so much low-hanging fruit, in fact, but pre-picked, washed and packaged fruit. An open goal.

Better yet, he’s taking on the internet. Give the tabloids a choice between putting a child in a room with an annoyed Rottweiler or a room with an internet-connected computer, and the child will be attempting to disengage its arms from Fido’s jaws before you can say ISDN.

It’s Safer Internet Day today, which means we get to watch ministers wring their hands over the FILTH our kids are watching online. We also get to watch this patently absurd video which, I guess, tries to get across a point about cyber-bullying through the medium of 90s Euro house music and teleporting teenagers.

Where does Vaizey come into this? Tasked with cheerfully popping a ball into an open goal, he’s quickly discovering the goal mouth is lined with razor blades and the keeper has hands like mattresses. “There is material online that, while legal, is not suitable for children.  In the physical world youngsters are protected from inappropriate content and the same needs to happen online,” he said today. “We will continue to work with industry to address the legitimate concerns the public has over children having easy access to inappropriate content.”

Letting a child access the internet without supervision is like letting them browse Sky’s post-watershed channels

He’s right, of course. The internet is positively awash with pornography and graphic violence, much of which, I’m sure, has the potential to do great damage to immature, easily impressed and naive minds. Could a clever piece of internet-filtering software help?

No. Last Christmas I was in a room full of relatives, and, as can happen when conversation dries up and the last glass of wine has been slurped, the talk turned to YouTube Videos We Had Seen. We decamped to the computer room, where we watched – I forget – something about an ice-skating dog. Anyway, the video watched, the adults became distracted and the kids took over control of the search bar. Less than five minutes later they had found a wet T-shirt competition.

Having noted the address, I was taken aback to realise that this happened not only on a computer that already had filtering software, but on a website (YouTube) which supposedly filters content.

Adult content is everywhere online. Any innocent search on Google Images has the potential – if not an actual likelihood – to produce an array of startlingly adult images, scattered like rude confetti through legitimate search results. If the internet can return porn when you’re not even looking for it, what hope does an automatic filter have? Kids are smarter and more tech-savvy than their parents and will defeat all but the most draconian filtration systems.

There is, however, a filter that works. It reacts fast and it doesn’t matter how content has been disguised: if it’s adult content, it will be recognised and shut down immediately. If a child repeat offends, the filter can react with an array of cruel punishments, from the withholding of money to earlier curfews. Earlier versions could deliver a clip around the ear.

The filter is the parent or guardian of a child, and that either would allow a young person to access the internet – filtered or not – without supervision truly boggles the mind. Letting a child access the internet without supervision is like letting them browse Sky’s post-watershed channels.

That’s why I feel bad for Ed Vaizey. He’s been instructed to make the Government look like it has a command of technology, and the conscience to deploy that technology to protect children. What he should be doing, though, is telling parents to pay attention, and there’s not much political capital in that.

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