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How shall we protect our children online?

This article doesn’t fit within the goal of Communicate Jesus to provide “insights and inspiration to maximise your ministry”. However, it discusses an important question that is particularly topical for our Australia readers, but of value to readers around the world. I welcome your comments on how we answer the question – “How shall we protect our children online?”.

Two years ago I was travelling with my sisters by train from Rome to Mestre. In our carriage we sat with three Italians, doing our best to communicate in their stilted English, and our non-existent Italian.The gentlemen in the trio had spent some time in Germany, and shared a story that still strikes me as remarkable.

He was on foot, waiting to cross the road. Though he didn’t have permission from the ‘green man’, there were no cars around and he proceeded to cross the road. Seemingly out of nowhere, police approached him and he was fined for crossing the road while the pedestrian light was still red. I asked him why this was such a big deal (should I admit that I’ve done this more than a couple of times?!). He explained that the law is not in place for the benefit of adults like him – he can look around and see if a car is coming and cross safely. Children who are watching, however, don’t have the same awareness, and if they cross when the signal isn’t green – because they have seen an adult do this – they could be in a lot of danger. The law was in place for the benefit of the younger, weaker, citizens.

It put a very different slant on how I viewed the law. It’s not always about me.

The question our nation is considering at the moment is this: how do we protect our younger, weaker citizens from the dangers and perversions that exist online? There has been much talk recently of the Federal Government’s plans to adopt an ISP-based filtering system (in laymans terms – blocking prohibited content before it arrives at your computer). There are many ‘personal’ filters available, for example Covenant Eyes, Net Nanny, SafeEyes and many more (here’s a list of 10 reviews of this type of filter). These filters are installed on your computer, and block the content when it arrives, or when a user attempts to access restricted content on your computer. A very rough but hopefully helpful, simple analogy to understand these two types of filters is to compare the post-office stopping Playboy magazine being delivered to your home (the government’s proposed filter), and your mum stopping Playboy being delivered from the letterbox to your bedroom (the current range of filters). Except, as Clive Hamilton points out, the content that is being filtered is much nastier than Playboy.

The basic plan as proposed by our government is this (again, it’s hard to boil down an issue that is by nature technical, but I’ll do my best):

  • The government will produce a blacklist – a list of no more than 10,000 URLs (basically, websites) of prohibited content.
  • ISPs (the companies that deliver the internet to your computer or mobile device) will be mandated to block this content from being delivered to you.
  • The blacklist of content will be secret – known only by the ISPs.

Not surprisingly (and to the benefit of our democracy and the robustness of this strategy) there are critics of the Government’s plan. Eight of the most common arguments against the plan are:

  1. We live in a democracy and the government should not restrict what adults do or view (as long as it’s within the law). Take for example this comment by Mike Atkins from Brisbane on Australian IT: “How dare you even think that you know better than me about what I can see or not see? I have no interest in censoring what you see so have the common to courtesy to respect my interests in return.”
  2. It’s the parents responsibility to prevent their children from viewing inappropriate online content – not the government’s.
  3. The government may expand the list of prohibited sites to include, for example, sites that are “anti-government”. Because the list is secretive, we won’t know if we are being prevented from seeing these sites.
  4. There are other dangers to children online – such as cyber-bullying, and chat-room paedophiles – that can’t be filtered in this way. Shouldn’t we be giving equal focus to these dangers?
  5. Internet users might inadvertently be blocked from accessing legal and appropriate content.
  6. The implementation of such a filter is technically extremely difficult and will dramatically decrease the speed of the internet.
  7. A great deal of child porn (15,000 videos and 50,000 images, as cited by Australian Federal Police acting assistant commissioner Neil Gaughan in Computer World)  is circulated on peer-to-peer networks that can’t be filtered by ISPs.

Before discussing the pros and cons of the filter, it’s worth noting the challenge the nature of the internet poses for enforcing Australian law. A website can be hosted (have its “home address”) anywhere in the world. This means that whilst our government might have laws about what content is legal or illegal to view in Australia (the Australian Communications and Media Authority has a list of content that is prohibited), unless the content (e.g. website with child porn images) is hosted in Australia (or unless a website that is hosted in Australia links to that content), there is very little the Australian government can do about it. This is similar to having a state in Australia that is free from the laws of the rest of Australia where people can go to access whatever illegal content they want…except that this isn’t a state – it’s the internet, and it’s freely accessible in most homes, and on most mobile devices across the nation.

With this challenge in mind, let’s continue to ponder the question – “How shall we protect our children online?”.

Staying on top of the developments and discussions isn’t easy, and I hope that I haven’t, and don’t, mislead or misrepresent either side of this complex discussion. The government has at times added to the complexity, for example, Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy has tried to assure critics of the plan by citing other countries (Sweden, Britain, Canada and New Zealand) that use the proposed filter. However, from several sources including The Age, “participation by ISPs [in these countries] was optional and the filtering was limited in scope to predominantly child pornography”.

I thought I would share with you five of my own reflections upon reading the material for and against the proposed plan:

  1. We need to be shocked and appalled that there is such terrible content online that degrades women, destroys the innocence of children, and provides great sexual temptation to men and women alike. We should be outraged that children (and others) are abused and exploited for the entertainment or titillation of others. This is our biggest problem – not the infringement of civil rights (such as the ability to view whatever I want online). Democracy isn’t a free ticket to do whatever I want – it’s about electing officials who will enforce the laws of the land according to the needs and general well-being of society as a whole.
  2. The anti-filter proponents are right – it is parents and not the government that should be responsible for protecting our children from inappropriate online content (the government should go after the idiots who are creating this material). Parents should know what their children are looking at online. They should install a filter on their home computers. They should put the computer in a ‘public’ place – e.g. the lounge room where there will always be other people around. But not all parents do. And internet is now as readily accessible on mobile phones as it is on the home computer. So unless good parenting is mandated, and phones can adopt suitable filtering, the danger for our children will still be very real and easy accessible. On the ABC News website, Mark Newton says to supporters of the government’s filter – “after spending 30 years proving that our nation can successfully raise children in an environment of ubiquitous access to uncensored online services, are you able to explain how profoundly Australian parents must have failed to justify this radical proposal?” In response, I would suggest that this proposal does not imply that every parent has failed, or that parents aren’t doing their best to protect their children – many are. However (to use a very different analogy), every person doesn’t need to commit a crime to prove that gaols are necessary. Some measures are necessary to protect the vulnerable who aren’t being protected by those who should protect them.
  3. Good measures of accountability need to be put in place to ensure that this government (and future governments), don’t use the secret blacklist as a way of blacklisting “anti-government” material. We don’t want to our internet access to be reminiscent of China’s. However, the blacklist isn’t administered by one person – all Australian internet service providers would have a copy. Whilst they can’t make the blacklist publically available (it would be dangerous and irresponsible to publish a list of 10,000 websites with prohibited and perverse content), we can be sure that they would speak up if they saw sites added to the list that didn’t fit the criteria.
  4. There are technical challenges that need to be overcome if the proposed filter will be implemented usefully. We don’t want legal sites to be blocked. We don’t want the internet to be slowed down to a point where it’s unusable. However, this is the purpose of the pilot – to identify the challenges, to find the problems, and then see what we can do to find the solutions to those problems. The internet represents a history of innovation and problem-solving – there is no reason why these challenges can’t also be overcome, or at the very least that we shouldn’t try to overcome them.
  5. Sadly, there are other challenges to children’s safety online that can’t be fixed by a filter. The filter certainly won’t be a silver bullet. However, because all problems can’t be fixed with a filter, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stop some problems with a filter. Surely a bandage that prevents some blood loss is better than no bandage?

This is a complex debate, but the underlying question is simple and clear – “How shall we protect our children online?”. Let’s forget about pursuing our needs and demanding our rights, and consider those younger, and more vulnerable than us. Let’s practically answer the question “how shall we protect our children online?” in a way they can thank us for many years into the future.

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  1. Pingback: Pornography in the Church, A Private Pandemic (Ministry Resourses Included) « Roy's Blog

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