Everything and anything exists on the internet; from an instant ‘drunk’ spray to a magnetic floating bed, and some things will inevitably be more suited to some people’s tastes than others. This does however create a problem, and whilst we seem to have got the hang of controlling unsavoury content in the real world – glamour magazines on the top shelf, age restricted films and adult only shops – a new can of worms has been opened with the internet. The scariest element of all is that it is often those who we need to protect the most – children – who have the ability to access it all!
With politicians such as Claire Penny MP arguing that ISPs must take responsibility for child access to porn, and the recent court ruling stating that ISPs should block access to the Pirate Bay, focus is once again on the internet, its availability and censorship. For some, the net is an optional extra that they can live without, for many others it’s essential. My concern is that the first view presumes there’s a brick wall between the real world and the virtual world, one that simply doesn’t exist.
The online and physical world are combining, interweaving and becoming more dependent on each other, every day. The internet is increasingly mirroring the physical world, and the more we integrate it into daily lives, the more problems this mirror will reveal. As in the real world, there will be internet crime, obscenities and danger, and like the real world, only so many precautions can be taken. The rest needs to be done with common sense, education and guidance. At present, some seem to be overlooking this point.
Protecting children from unsavoury information, such as porn, terrorism and brutality is not as easy as flicking a switch, and default internet censorship is not the silver bullet. Firstly, if children don’t find ways to circumvent the restrictions, hackers and scammers will, meaning that children may still be targeted in phishing or social engineering scams. Secondly, what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ is completely subjective. What for one person is nudity and inappropriate for children, may for another be sex education, or a school art project. Different sites will also be more damaging to different individuals. For example, weight loss sites may strike a chord with some but not others and while websites may not look incriminating at first glance, they might need to be treated just as sensitively as more obviously explicit websites.
It is absolutely correct that we should be trying to protect the vulnerable, but restricting websites creates the illusion that this can be done at the touch of a button, as easy as launching a web browser. For some parents or grandparents who are less familiar with the internet, they may see such precautions as a solution, leaving children at huge risk of seeing something they shouldn’t, by simply not realising that internet use itself still needs to be monitored. You wouldn’t let an eight year old start reading Cosmopolitan magazine, so why would you allow them on a website or into a forum which discusses similar issues? The only reason ISPs should proactively block websites is if they’re illegal, anything else is a matter of opinion, as far as I’m concerned. In reaction to Claire Penny MP one Tweeter quoted by the BBC said, "You want DIY stores to be responsible for what buyers of crowbars do with them." I completely agree.
As always, a combined effort is needed: the Government, security vendors and ISPs need to advise parents on how to control internet usage, but blanket censorship of the internet is not a solution, just as it isn’t in the real world.