Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Are parents the best porn blockers?

Porn, art or education?
The Telegraph has reported that a UK ISP's new content filtering system has spectacularly failed to block a major hardcore pornographic website.

TalkTalk's HomeSafe security product is supposed to block, "pornography, viruses and other potentially harmful content."

However, "for more than a week the system has failed to restrict access to Pornhub, which offers thousands of free explicit videos and is ranked as the third largest pornography provider on the web."

The report claims that HomeSafe "operates at the network level so parents do not need to install or maintain any software."

This incident supports my long-held belief that protecting children online is at least as much a parenting challenge as it is a technical one.

For one thing, a child is (usually) an intelligent and curious creature that will positively relish the challenge in bypassing whatever filters the parents or ISPs have put in place.

The following is a lightly-edited extract from a book I wrote in 2008. It was called The Complete Internet Security Handbook 2009. I think it's only available second-hand now.

Pornography is a tricky subject and not everyone agrees where to draw the lines between art, education and porn. Some parents are going to have a more liberal view than others, but some areas are less grey than others.


What is pornography?

While some believe that pictures of naked bodies are beautiful or educational, rather than corrupting, society generally agrees that so-called 'hardcore' pornography (where sexual acts are clearly illustrated in full) are not ideal material for fresh young minds. In some countries these images and videos are illegal.

In the UK the law is not very clear but, for the purposes of this chapter, we're going to assume that you want to shield your child from anything more explicit than basic educational diagrams and photos of isolated naked bodies, genitals included.

Images of child abuse (sometimes erroneously known as 'child pornography') lie in a completely different category from any adult-based porn. It is illegal to produce, distribute or view such images, which are handled by different laws to adult porn. There is no grey area here – not only should you take every step to prevent your child from seeing it, you should avoid it yourself or face prosecution.

Blocking porn and other content

There are technical ways to prevent internet porn entering your home, which I covered in the book. However, consider that young people are curious, inventive and probably better at using a computer than you are. If you intend to monitor their computer usage or block their access to parts of the internet, be aware that you may lose this game if you allow them unsupervised access to an internet-connected PC.

A technical solution, such as parental control software and content-blocking firewalls may be less effective than keeping the family PC in the living room. A teenage is less likely to explore the darker parts of the internet when Mum or Dad are sitting nearby.

Some porn-blocking systems use keywords to decide if a site is bad or not. For example, a firewall or parental control system may block access to a site that contains sexual swear words. Another approach is for services to maintain lists of website addresses known to host sites containing dubious content. However, such services may be less helpful than you'd think.

When you try to block content, be it porn, gambling, violence or anything else, there is a risk that useful, legitimate sites will be blocked, while bad sites will still get through.

For example, a child in secondary education is most likely receiving some level of sexual education and it would not be inappropriate for this child to search for information on organs such as the penis and vagina. Some porn-blocking services may over-zealously block educational sites.

It is unrealistic to assume that every content-blocking service knows about every bad site. In fact, what you consider to be bad and what someone else thinks is unacceptable is probably quite different. Today's teenager, left unattended with an internet-connected PC, will find hardcore pornography if they have a mind to, regardless of the technical measures that you take. 

Work together

Because everyone has a different idea about what is and is not acceptable, there is currently no better system than sitting down with the young person in your care and working on the internet together. You can be on hand to guide their choices of websites and, in unfortunate cases where your choice was poor, you'll be in a position to browse away from content that you’d rather they did not see.

However, there are ways to block access to certain types of content and it may not be practical to supervise a child’s internet use constantly. If that is the case, you can use parental control systems to help reduce the risks that your child will face when going online.


TIP: For a quick and dirty website blocking system try this.