Protecting children online: strike the balance between safety and censorship

7 Jan 2014

As UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts to block access to extreme material online – including child pornography – spark a furious debate about creeping censorship, Ireland has an opportunity to strike a balance and lead the way forward.

This month, the UK will apply a series of ‘opt in’ filters with the co-operation of internet service providers (ISPs) with the purpose of preventing teenagers and young people accessing extreme pornographic material.

The purpose on one hand is to enable parents to make the internet a safe environment for their children. However, it is also to prevent the UK public accessing child abuse material (CAM).

There is a widespread belief among the powers that be in the UK that access to extreme material online, such as CAM, contributed to the murders of youngsters Tia Sharp and April Jones.

If adults so wish to watch legitimate porn on their internet-connected devices, as is their right, they will simply have to opt-in.

In addition, Cameron won a noted victory in recent months in getting commitment from internet giants Google and Microsoft to make it harder to access extreme material online across all English-speaking countries. A new breakthrough technology will also be applied that will allow illegal videos to be tagged so all duplicate copies can be removed across the internet.

Any right-thinking person would agree CAM represents a breach of human rights and Cameron’s goals on that front ought to be supported.

In addition, there is a concern that mainstream pornography online is unfortunately taking the place of proper sex education among many teenagers, potentially contributing to more problems down the line.

However, instead the debate has morphed into a debate about creeping censorship and Big Brother, and whether this is just the start of a broader clamp-down on internet freedoms and freedom of speech. Also, by an adult opting in and an ISP recording their decision to view pornography, this also opens a Pandora’s Box around privacy, data retention and reputation.

Cameron’s initiative is not helped by the fact that initial experiences of the BT filter have shown that they may also block access to relevant sex education topics, including “sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptive, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy”.

Technological innovation and leadership

In 2012, we reported on the efforts of a group of Seanad senators in Ireland – including Senators Jillian van Turnhout, Martin McAleese, Fiach MacConghail, Mary Ann O’Brien, Marie Louise O’Donnell and Katherine Zappone – who put forward a private member’s motion urging Justice Minister Alan Shatter, TD, to put in place legislation that will require Irish internet service providers (ISPs) to block child abuse material in Ireland.

Turnhout pointed out that child abuse material – which actively shows real abuse being inflicted on children – is blocked in the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries, but not Ireland.

Irish fixed-line ISPs have claimed in the past that it would be better to remove CAM than block it, claiming it would be technologically too onerous to achieve. Meanwhile, their wireless counterparts – the mobile operators – already block CAM as they are obliged through their membership of the GSM Association.

This week, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte held the first meeting of the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group, chaired by Dr Brian O’Neill of Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).

Rabbitte congratulated the group’s agreement on a comprehensive Terms of Reference set. “In positioning Ireland as a global leader in technological innovation and entrepreneurship, it is important that we match this commitment with a commitment to facilitate a safe and encouraging online environment for society and particularly for children and young people.”

It must be noted that the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group was formed in the wake of public outrage in Ireland following the loss of young lives to suicide last year, allegedly due to bullying on social networking sites.

As such, the remit of the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group is a broad one; the issues of online bullying, creating a safe environment for young people and blocking access to child abuse material will all demand urgent attention.

With so many tech companies with international headquarters in Ireland, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Ireland has an opportunity to take centre stage in this, one of the most controversial debates of our time.

If anything, Ireland has a chance to shine a beacon on the myriad of issues that have made the internet a dark place for so many and that means stridently tackling issues like online bullying, safe internet, better access to sex education and the blocking of CAM in an enlightened and innovative way.

The slow and bruising experience of Cameron’s worthy but troubled initiative makes one thing very clear: the key is to strike a balance between safety and censorship.

Child protection image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years