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SHOULDN’T WE BE FIGHTING BACK?

What parents, regulators and Internet service providers are doing to manage online porn

COLIN CAMPBELL,CHARLIE GILLIS,KATE LUNAU June 30 2008
HOME

SHOULDN’T WE BE FIGHTING BACK?

What parents, regulators and Internet service providers are doing to manage online porn

COLIN CAMPBELL,CHARLIE GILLIS,KATE LUNAU June 30 2008

SHOULDN’T WE BE FIGHTING BACK?

What parents, regulators and Internet service providers are doing to manage online porn

COLIN CAMPBELL

CHARLIE GILLIS

KATE LUNAU

We don’t let them drink beer or go to R-rated movies. They’re not allowed to buy cigarettes—in some provinces, they’re not even allowed to look at them in the corner store—and yet we allow kids to roam more or less freely in cyberspace, where smut is always just two clicks away.

Over the past decade, the number of highspeed Internet connections in Canada has soared to over 60 per cent of households, according to the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). And Web access has spread beyond the confines of the home computer—to cellphones, music players, and video-game consoles. Still, we know surprisingly little about what kids actually do online. A survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that parents have more rules governing kids’ access to video games and TV shows than they do websites. Only half of parents said their home computer has a filter blocking certain websites, and 45 per cent said they use monitoring software to track what teens do online.

While these tools are important measures for parents, filtering out harmful material is an imperfect science at best, says Tim Richardson, an e-commerce professor at Seneca College in Toronto—and it’s made virtually impossible by the rapid growth and fluid nature of the Internet. A 2007 study by Deloitte Enterprise Risk Services reviewed dozens of filtering programs, and not one received a perfect score. On a scale of one to four, the average score was just 2.5 (the best was a filter made by Optenet.com). The rise of social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace, where content is constantly being added and manipulated by users, is making filters even less effective. These tools “cannot sufficiently distinguish innocent from harmful content in these highly dynamic environments,” concluded the Deloitte report.

So what exactly are Canadian authorities doing to protect kids from the onslaught? In 1999, the CRTC made a pivotal decision to let the Internet run wild, figuratively speaking, exempting so-called “new media” from

the sorts of standards it requires of mainstream broadcasters. “Ifyou are on the Internet, do whatever you want,” said David Colville, the commissioner who led hearings into the issue. Parents, in other words, can fend for themselves.

Even if it wanted to, the CRTC couldn’t do much about porn, says Anne Collier, co-director of a U.S.-based organization called Con-

nectSafely.org, which promotes safe use of the Internet. She is quick to acknowledge the implicit contradiction here: both the U.S. and Canada have laws, state institutions and industry groups regulating the content of movies, radio and TV. But the Internet is at once global and ubiquitous, she points out: “How do you control what comes from outside of that state or country?”

Still, advocates argue that even if a system is imperfect, it’s still of some use, and the impulse to keep porn off-limits to kids is

IT’S LIKE PLAYING A GIANT GANE OF WHACK-A-NOLE

entirely proper. It’s not impossible, after all, for a 12-year-old to get his hands on a pack of Players, but we still have laws in place—why should we approach Web pornography any differently? Dave Quist, executive director of the Institute for Marriage and Family Canada, says the CRTC could help by requiring telecom providers to offer filtered Internet service, sparing parents the need to perpetually monitor their kids’ online activities. “If they offered this option, personally, I’d sign up for it,” he says.

In Australia, plans to provide a “clean” Internet feed to homes across the country have resulted in a bumpy but laudable process of trial and error. The Australian government announced a $l8l-million scheme aimed at cracking down on online porn; included in the package was an $80-million

filter designed to prevent access to blacklisted websites. But in 2007, the software was quickly deemed a failure after Tom Wood, a 16-yearold student, managed to bypass it in just 30 minutes.

Not to be dissuaded, the Australian government is now moving ahead with a $121million plan to block “inappropriate” content at the ISP level (adult users can contact their ISPs to opt out). Despite concerns that these filters might cripple the country’s high-speed Internet access—and hinder free speech—a test program is now underway, and should be complete by the end of July.

In the U.S., attempts to enforce a law that would keep legal online porn away from kids, though fraught, have also resurfaced perennially. Facing opposition from several freespeech groups, government lawyers are now trying to revive the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, which would require commercial websites offering content deemed “harmful to minors” to ensure users are over 18. Because no good age-detection software exists, such websites would require a credit card number or some other form of identification—and that’s a problem, says Internet privacy and security lawyer Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety. If you’re “running for PTA president,” she says, an online trail linking you to a porn site is the last thing you need.

Ultimately, trying to stop Internet porn is like a giant game of whack-a-mole. Even countries that have gone to extreme measures to block what we’d consider “legal” porn, like China and Signapore, have had moderate success, says Internet filtering expert Nart Villeneuve, a senior research fellow at the University of Toronto. “It’s really difficult to block a determined user,” he says. “You can block inadvertent access; you can block users that will give up quickly. But if you’re determined, you can get around filtering.”

There is no sweeping solution. But there may be billions of little ones, says Aftab, and if we are ever going to stem the tide, we need to start implementing them—even if it means one at a time. “It’s going to take industry initiatives like the pornographers self-regulating,” she says. “It’s going to take novel laws—in the U.S., we have a misleading domain name act. It says that if you use a Web domain name for porn that is attractive to children, that’s intended to draw children to a site, you go to jail. So we need to start prosecuting people under the laws we have. We need to start teaching pom consumers that they should be going to reliable sites. We need to teach parents about filtering, and we need to make filtering free. It’s going to take all these 90 billion things for us to come to a solution, but little by little we’re going to get there.” M