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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. Luke Gilkerson

    March 7, 2009 at 2:51 am

    Covenant Eyes also has an accountability program for your computer, which I believe does a great job training children to be open and honest about their Internet use:

  2. Jon McCallon

    March 11, 2009 at 3:26 am

    This is the biggest challenge for me to grasp. What is the best way? It seems like a combination of equipping parents who really are getting lost in the technology cycles that there children are getting incorporated into their life faster and faster, teaching wise choices from an early age, and filtering at some level that does not move our kids entirely into a safety bubble, depending on what age they are at.

    The matter of fighting the battles of the technology age is not much different than the war on terror, there is not one enemy to go after but many wide open sources of the disturbance that has hit our screens, airwaves, and ears. I struggle as a parent and as a pastor on these issues, because in my own struggle with this content I am tired of the same folks who say this or that on being the definitive solution.

    I have several situations right now that are dealing with this very issue with ipod being the content carrier.

    Jesus baby we need your help man. Thanks for visiting my place online brother.

  3. r4nd0m1z

    March 12, 2009 at 12:33 am

    Don’t believe the marketing hype. Content blocking filters are trivial to bypass and web browsing history can be completely expunged (very easily). Parents who install these filters can be lulled into a false sense of security. The safest protection is education and a watchful eye.

  4. Matt

    April 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    The problem with any client-side solution is that they can ALL be navigated around. For certain, the average teenager doesn’t know how, but some will, and word will spread. I truly believe ISP filtering is the safest option available today.

    At home we use – Australia’s first ISP content filter. We’ve been a Webshield customer for several years and are extremely happy. The customer service is excellent and the the technology is the best I’ve come across so far.



  5. Cameron

    April 8, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    I have a boss who is very passionate about this topic, there are so many problems with this legislation. As Phil Cooke points out on his blog it is the parents responsibility. In Australia where the government offered a free filter less than 50,000 people downlaoded it. An education campaign is what is needed not a filter. As we know some content is currently illegal in this country and it still gets in. The “naughty” people have a greater desire to get around this type of technology than the rest of us. So the myth that this will “fixed the internet” for kids is factually incorrect. A private blacklist could mean any site is blocked and there would be no way to tell, furthermore the legislation states that any site linking to a blacklisted site (that noone can possibly know is blacklisted) will be fined in the region of $10,000 a day.

    Christians need to start listening to industry professionals and get off their high horses. This is bad legislation!! Change of heart is what is needed and surely as Chrsitians we understand this better than most. Fix the heart and the need to porn etc goes away, combine this with currently available online protection tools and you can create a safe place for your kids to surf.

    Sorry about the rambling nature of this post but I was kinda just putting it out there.

  6. Steven Kryger

    April 8, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Hi Matt, thanks for sharing. I agree with the comment about the limits of client-side filtering. I’m wondering if perhaps instead of using filters, parents could install software like Covenant Eyes that tracks and records what is being viewed online, and if kids were viewing inappropriate material parents could speak with them about it?

  7. Steven Kryger

    April 8, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Hi Cameron, thanks also for sharing your thoughts. A couple of things come to mind:

    – I agree entirely that getting parents to protect their kids is important and essential. But happens for kids whose parents don’t care? If only 50,000 parents downloaded the filter, perhaps they either aren’t educated (in which education would help), or just don’t care?

    – I also agree that a change of heart, by God, is what is required. But this isn’t where we put a full stop is it? A change of heart will stop people stealing cars, but we still legislate against this and do what we can to prevent it.

  8. r4nd0m1z

    April 9, 2009 at 12:10 am

    Hi Steven,

    Software like Covenant Eyes that tracks and records what is being viewed online only works while the installed operating system is running…but it is not difficult to bypass the installed OS: just pop in a Knoppix disk and reboot. Of course there are ways to prevent that too, but how many parents will disable their computer’s ability to boot from CD/DVD/USB and password protect their BIOS? Do they even know what the BIOS is and how to get in?

  9. neil_mc

    April 9, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    “The problem with any client-side solution is that they can ALL be navigated around. For certain, the average teenager doesn’t know how, but some will, and word will spread. I truly believe ISP filtering is the safest option available today.”

    Matt, there seems to be an odd perception that ISP filtering is much harder to get around than PC filtering. It might actually be swinging the other way now. Eg I’ve looked at Integard and it’s now pretty tough. Even with admin privileges you can’t just kill a process to get unfiltered internet. You can stop the Integard service, but that just kills your internet access completely. It hooks into the windows network stack from the looks of the registry.

    Interestingly there are numerous methods to get around ISP filtering. Some of these don’t require admin access.

    An unsupervised child on ISP filtered Internet is definitely more vulnerable than a supervised child on unfiltered Internet.

    People are already creating guides for bypassing the government’s new filtering. How? It’s not in yet. No, but it’s not like no one has ever tried to filter a nation before. Professionals travelling into China routinely bypass the censorship.


  10. weez

    April 9, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    “Matt Says:
    April 8th, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    The problem with any client-side solution is that they can ALL be navigated around. For certain, the average teenager doesn’t know how, but some will, and word will spread. I truly believe ISP filtering is the safest option available today.”

    ISP based filtering is even easier to beat than PC based filters. You can use VPN, offshore proxies or even Google as a proxy to beat any ISP based filter.


  11. Steven Kryger

    April 10, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Other than education of parents (which I agree is important), what do you think are the best ways of preventing children from viewing inappropriate material online? Is it possible for an ISP filter (in the not too distant future) to be an effective way of doing this?

  12. weez

    April 10, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    “what do you think are the best ways of preventing children from viewing inappropriate material online?”

    Don’t put the kids’ PC in their bedroom, put in in a rec room or other area where you can see what they’re doing.

    You can also install a spylogging application which will report to you what sites they’re visiting.

  13. weez

    April 10, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    “Is it possible for an ISP filter (in the not too distant future) to
    be an effective way of doing this?”

    No. ISP based filters are far too easy to circumvent and always will be so, particularly in the situation of home computers where the user can install software on the local machine.

    Only in a corporate network environment, where the company owns the desktop machines and can set restrictive policies which prevent the user from installing software or booting from an alternate source (i.e. USB, CD-ROM, etc) is upstream filtering effective, but even then, browsing to a proxy will get around the filter.

  14. Anon Ymous

    July 29, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    How can you be so sure that ISPs will report to the public if things are on the list that ought not to be there? There is *already* a website on the banned list that carries a $10k fine if you link to it (so I am not risking it, though I saw it linked on a non-australian website and which I could remember where), which is nothing more than an article critical of the censorship. Contained within it are the words: “First rule of censorship: don’t talk about censorship!” in an update when it was added to the banned list. It was already talking about how the list is restricted, which completely erases any chance of accountability.

    All oppressive internet filters in the world started with the premise that they would only filter child porn. It’s the one thing most decent people can agree on – no one should exploit children for pornography, and it isn’t possible to make porn involving people under the age of consent in a non-exploitative way. So it’s an easy way to get a censorship system into place. One thing that tends to separate the “good” countries with the censorship from the “bad” ones is transparency. When the government hides what it’s doing, it can easily slip in blocks for websites critical of it. Thailand, for instance, began its censorship of the net about child porn, and now over 90% of sites added to its banned list are added for the crime of “lesse majeste” – or being rude about the King.

    On a completely different note, my father was brutally raped as a child (aged 6. They forced him to wear a dress while they did it, too, because apparently raping a child was a lot less bad than being “queer”…) and has this to say about child pornography: he deeply wishes that the perverts who violated him had instead got their rocks off by taking photos and masturbating to them.

    Not saying this to excuse the deeply demeaning and exploitative business of child pornography. It’s terrible. I guess I’m just saying that it’s important to remember why it’s bad – to remember who it’s hurting.

    As to how we ought to protect our children… I’m not a mother yet. Might well never be. But I think extensive education as soon as a child is old enough to understand is a good start, and before that point in time, restricting access to the internet (including not giving a child a mobile phone with internet browsing! If they need a phone for their safety, great, there are lots of phones without internet access. I have one myself.), and supervising them thoroughly for the times you allow them on.

    Another thing is the possibility of actually locating the harm in things, and treating the source, rather than the symptom. I was very glad to read in the first point on Steven’s reflections that he put “degrades women” at the top of his list of Why Porn Is Bad. Too many people I see saying it’s bad seem to think it is bad just because it is, but they’re happy to degrade women in ways that haven’t been specifically forbidden to them by their chosen authority. This, to me, looks like whoever is telling them what is bad is chosing one level up from where they ought to be – they’re addressing an example of what the problem causes, and not the problem itself. This is the same type of thinking that causes otherwise sensible people to try to ban the Gardasil vaccine – they believe that Sex is Bad without thinking about why, and thus they ban things that take away consequences out of fear that reducing the consequences will encourage the action. They also do this without thinking of the shockingly high percentage of women who will get raped at some point in their life [over 80% to the strictest definition of rape (sex that was not consented to freely, while the woman was in a sober condition and able to give true consent)- but still around a quarter even to a definition that most men agree with (sex that happened while the woman was sober, that she vocally informed the perpetrator that she did not consent to, that he ignored, whether or not force was used, or that was otherwised coerced in a relatively obvious fashion)], and also the high percentage of unfaithful partners [an interesting DNA study amongst a specific insular and highly religious community recently showed that more than half of all births were to biological fathers who were different to the man mentioned on the birth certificate. The reason why such an insular society was chosen was because it was then possible to track past historic trends, and prove that it was not the modern age that caused this – men sleeping with other women (pls see previous note on rape for reasons why I am not willing to place 100% of the blame on the women, here!) has been rampant for the past 1000 years+, especially men from wealthier and more powerful families (i.e. men who were harder to resist when they pressed – or, in other words, men who found it relatively easy to rape lower classed women), who were much more predominant in the gene pool.]. Because, of course, being 100% faithful to your husband and never sleeping around does not in fact protect you from disease if he cheats on you.

    Okay, this has turned into quite a messy post, which veers off-topic quite a bit, so I’ll leave it there. Just one more thing, if you have the time: is an extremely interesting book (entirely free online) called The Authoritarians, which might explain why “censorship doesn’t solve everything, but isn’t it better than nothing?” (O.P., paraphrased) raises red flags for me.


    -Opinionated Anonymous Feminist

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

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