David Cameron did the rounds of the media studios yesterday promoting the Government’s new initiative for online safety for children. If it had not been for the stupidity of the idea, it would have been brilliant.
The UK Government is proposing two changes – a filtering system run by Internet Service Providers to restrict access to online pornography and the banning of certain search phrases which could reveal real nasty stuff.
On the face of it, that sounds a great idea. To the uninitiated it sounds as though the Government is at last doing something about the horrors of the web. To the cynical it sounds merely like something designed to gain the votes of the ignoramt.
There are two main issues with the system put in place by the Prime Minister.
Firstly, filtering can be circumvented. Any teenager can easily find out how to get round filters. It doesn’t take a genius to search for software that gets round filters, to find there are plenty of free options as well as a ton of advice on how to do this easily – without parents knowing…! So when an ISP has filters switched on, Mum and Dad will be reassured that their children will be protected. But those youngsters could well be going around those filters, seeing things which may be psychologically damaging to them. But Mum and Dad won’t know – they won’t even bother to talk about online safety because that nice Mr Cameron has solved it for them. Far from making the Internet safer for children, the filter move has the potential to make it more dangeorous as parents will relax their existing controls blissfully unaware that their children are visiting porn.
The second issue about banning search terms is patent nonsense. Each MONTH around 50% of the phrases searched for on the web have NEVER been used before. Novel combinations of words and phrases are the very lifeblood of search and one reason why Google has to constantly update its index. To ban a word or phrase from revealing search results would be a never-ending and unsuccessful chase. As one phrase is banned, people would search for another one. A ban on search terms simply would not work – even before you consider the civil liberty implications or the problems it might cause when the banned phrases could impact legitimate search terms too.
Here is what the Government ought to be doing. Instead of worrying about whether or not Google pays any tax, they should set up an educational programme both for children and for parents that receives significantly more funding than any previous initiatives. That funding should be in the tens of millions of pounds region and should come directly from Google. Call it a “contribution to society”. The money would provide leaflets, booklets, evening classes, online lessons, Facebook pages and a one-to-one phone advice shop for parents and children. The whole thing will be geared to educating parents in particular as to what they can do to help their children use the Internet safely and what to do if they stumble across anything nasty.
The reason this is needed is simple. One set of parents may have their filters switched on and think their child is protected. But their youngster visits their friend’s house where the filters are switched off and they can see anything. With education those children potentially seeing anything will know how to avoid the nasty stuff, what to do if it is mistakenly viewed and that they should discuss their feelings and reactions to it with their parents. With a massive education campaign these things can happen. With the Government’s filters in place all that will happen is that the danger to children is INCREASED.
Far from helping online safety, these changes have made things worse. As a parent, David Cameron should be ashamed.
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+