Parental controls

I don’t usually do serious topics on this blog, partly because that’s not the kind of thing I usually consider myself able to comment on with any real knowledge but mostly because I’m only pretending to be an adult and worry that, by trying to comment on such weighty matters, I’ll reveal my true nature. But I’m going to make an exception having read on the ORG website that the Department for Education have stopped plans to put a default-to-enabled parental filter in place on all UK internet connections. I feel, as someone who has a “day job” in the education sector and two teenagers rattling around the house, that this decision was very sensible of the DfE’s part and, for what it’s worth, applaud them for it.

That might sound counterintuitive but I’ve learnt a few things from spending some eight years working behind filtering and far longer on the internet at large; firstly, you can throw up the best possible protection and, if a bright child wants to see something they shouldn’t, the chances are that they’ll still find a way to do so before explaining what they did to their friends. I’ve seen some truly impressive work-arounds from pre-teen children to reach content on the internet that was thought to be inaccessible through local filtering service Leeds Learning Network and in those situations I’m a little torn; I know my job and have to arrange for the hole to be plugged as securely as possible, but part of me really appreciates the ingenuity involved in getting around the filter and has to bite it’s tongue about wanting to encourage that kind of out-of-the-box thinking.

The most important however is that filtering doesn’t really work, at least not with any level of reliability or consistency, so even the best laid plans can and do go severely astray. Take Grimes Dyke primary school whose name has repeatedly triggered false positives to the point where their own website, hosted by filtering provider LLN, has on occasion not been available to anyone using said filter. Yes it was a simple, faintly ridiculous mistake (as was the blocking of pages on another school website where the words “under construction” appeared because there had been a spate of proxies trying to pass themselves off in a similar way) but automated filters make those mistakes on a regular basis and sometimes without the issue being noticed for weeks on end. Scaling this sort of arrangement up to a national level was never going to alleviate that problem.

And all this is even before we worry about who actually manages a nationwide internet blacklist; do we give control of what we see over to the government and, if so, how do we know they can be trusted not to abuse that power because it presumably wouldn’t take much for a Tory MP to “accidentally” add parts of the Labour party’s website to filtering for example. And, as I said, someone clever can always figure out a way of “gaming” the protection and, if a pre-teen child can inventively work their way around a reasonably heavy grade internet filter, a crowd sourced” interest group” has pretty good odds of getting what they consider to be an objectionable website blocked.

The Daily Mail were extremely vocal in the campaign for this bill, with shock headlines on their website screaming “four in 10 parents say their children have been exposed to internet porn” and heading up articles that drew attention away from the point that those aforementioned parents should’ve been watching what their kids were doing online. Because, ultimately, that’s whose responsibility it is to protect your children on the internet and, if you haven’t been bothered to put at least a little time into researching possible options to filter your own connection, you are far more responsible than your service provider, the government or even the pornographers for your child seeing something inappropriate. A good starting point is Get Safe Online which provides advice on setting up parental controls and safeguarding your children (or indeed yourself) online.

We now return you to our scheduled programming.

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