It is easy in the heat of debate to forget that filtering is about protection, and filter software does not just attempt to block access to Web sites that most people would consider unsuitable for young children.
They also monitor and restrict access to chat rooms and message services where unsupervised children can fall victims to paedophiles and others who have the potential to harm them.
Horror stories abound of paedophiles and sex fiends on the Internet. Some are true, while others are urban myth. However, there are enough recorded cases to make it commonsense to protect children while they are online. It is widely accepted by international law enforcement groups that the biggest danger lies where paedophiles can have direct contact with children through bulletin boards and chat programs.
The FBI, which is responsible for investigating online sex predator cases in the United States, says sex offenders have contacted children over most of the major online services. In a notice to all parents on the net, the Bureau says the most important factors in keeping your child safe online are the utilisation of appropriate blocking software and/or parental controls, along with open, honest discussions with your child and monitoring their online activity.
The Bureau played a major role in putting together the US legislation governing Web sites designed for children that require any US-based site to be able to provide proof - other than email - of having the written consent of a childs parent before they can allow a child to take part in many aspects of a site, including chat rooms.
Australia has yet to introduce similar legislation and does not seem likely to. The US legislation appears to present little hindrance to a determined paedophile and makes it more difficult for kids to log in to sites that have been designed especially for them.
Sex predators use chat rooms to make contact with children, some times slowly seducing them with attention, affection, kindness, and even gifts or other times immediately engage in sexually explicit conversation with children. The FBI says some offenders primarily collect and trade child-pornographic images, while others seek face-to-face meetings with children through online contacts and children can be indirectly victimised through conversations in chat programs as well as through the transfer of sexually explicit information and material. Filters that scan chat programs for key words can provide an early warning system, but there is still no better protection than strict parental supervision.
However, many parents are at a disadvantage when dealing with children and teenagers who have Internet access. Their kids have grown up with computers, while they have had to learn about them after they left school and they are often unaware of what their children can do online if left unsupervised.
A young computer user with access to their parents credit card numbers can rack up huge bills, or download damaging programs that will give hackers access to valuable personal information stored on the computer, such as credit card numbers, bank account details or passwords.
Alternatively, their kids could be terrorising someone else on the net, such as in the case of the Queensland parents who arrived home from a trip to find that while the babysitters attention had been elsewhere, their young teenage son had been using hacking tools he had downloaded from the Internet to play havoc with other net users computers in Egypt and Canada.
Parents need to be able to monitor, and if necessary filter, not only what comes in from the Internet but what goes out from their own computer. Depending on the age of the children, parents have a choice that ranges from blocking access to all but a subscription-based safety zone, to a filter and firewall that allows plenty of freedom but blocks the downloading or uploading of software and personal data that might damage theirs or other peoples computers.
Under the new code of practice for ISPs, a growing number of service providers are offering filtered services that automatically block listed sites, however, subscribers can configure the service to allow different access levels to different members of the family.
Anecdotal evidence suggests there has not been a huge demand for the service and most ISPs are content to meet their obligations by providing copies of software like Net Nanny, Cyber Patrol and Cyber Sentinel.
This Feature appeared in the June, 2001 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine