My constant desire is, whatever I write should contribute at least marginally towards alleviating a few grave social problems that presently haunt us. I have, therefore, dealt with in this column — more frequently than I would want to — the growing complexity of protecting children from the smut that finds its way so easily these days into cyberspace.
This is something of an unequal task, as unequal as the modern policeman’s fight against conventional crime. Both endeavours require enormous perseverance and ingenuity, not to speak of high motivation and personal integrity.
I am convinced that more harmful material than we can ever imagine gets posted online, and the gullible surfer is unquestionably affected by it. The offenders are both those who exhort violence such as terrorism or indulge in traditional crime and those who peddle online pornography, especially obnoxious child images that have a roaring international market.
Many parents are proud of how computer-savvy their children are, without realising that this is a blessing as well as a curse. I am not, therefore, surprised that a recent UK survey, the Mobile Life Report, revealed that 87 per cent of respondents believed they were quite clued up about their wards’ surfing habits. About the same number opined that the latter did not access any material that their parents considered objectionable, and hence no controls at all were necessary to curb the surfing of their children.
As against this highly questionable complacence, about 25 per cent of those who went ahead to scrutinise the log of their children with access to the Internet admitted that there were definite grounds for concern. Of these, a few also said that they were cognizant of worrying incidents encountered by their young ones on cyberspace. On the whole, the survey revealed a certain complacence that I feel was unwarranted.
My own view is that, just as there is no need for paranoia about the dangers that lurk in cyberspace, certain circumspection is, in fact, prudent. This is what a clinical psychologist, who contributed to the Mobile Life survey, had possibly in mind, when she said that just as we teach children how to cross the road to avoid an accident, we need to impart education in online safety to them in an imaginative manner. Can there be anything more down-to-earth than this thoughtful exhortation to parents?
Swoop-down in australia
That I am speaking some sense should be clear from the fact that instances of pornography and online paedophilia continue to be reported from different parts of the globe. A few months ago, the Australian Federal Police revealed facts of a swoop on gangs operating across the country. Of the 70 arrested by them in this connection, at least one was a policeman, and several were teachers, all connected to the abominable trade in child images. The operation was sequel to the discovery of a European Web site that had displayed about 95 explicit pictures posted by a hacker.
This site, during a scrutiny that extended to 76 hours, received 12 million hits from about 1,50,000 users in 170 nations. More than 2,800 IP addresses were actually traced back to Australia itself and later identified by the Federal Police. Nothing can illustrate better the amazing international spread of the evil. More revealing was that the gangs involved were using all possible technology, including the Sony PlayStation and mobile phones, to download and transmit images from a mind boggling variety of Web sites, online communities and newsgroups.
Another shocking and widespread practice that has recently come to light is the tendency of some boys and girls to take nude pictures of themselves with the help of cell-phones and then exchanging them with friends.
This seems crazy and inexplicable, except perhaps by a child psychologist. To my untrained mind it suggests a juvenile desire to “show off”. Many States in the US have reported this strange phenomenon.
To be specific, in Santa Fe (Texas), school authorities seized a number of cell-phones from their students after nude pictures of two junior high school girls were found floating around the campus.
And in La Crosse (Texas), a 17-year-old boy was charged with child pornography, sexual exploitation of a child and defamation after he was caught posting objectionable pictures of an ex-girlfriend in MySpace.
Enquiry revealed that the victim girl herself had taken these with her cell phone and e-mailed them to the boy friend (when they were perhaps on good terms), who exploited them to wreak vengeance on the girl.
Recommendations of UK study
Consider all these happenings with the findings of a survey by Ofcom, UK’s telecom regulator, which found that nearly 50 per cent of children in the age-group 8-17 had their profiles posted in social networking sites, although they were under-aged to be allowed to do so. A large number of them had also set up the profile for a free view by anybody, and not merely their friends.
Most significantly, the UK government commissioned, in September 2007, a review of the risks involved in the exposure of children to inappropriate material on the Internet and video games. Led by Psychologist Tanya Brown, the six-month study, entitled Safer Children in a Digital World, came out in March 2008, with a series of most practical recommendations, generally endorsed by the government and Ofcom. The report was categorical that in no way could the Internet be made 100 per cent safe for the children, and there was need for government oversight and parental guidance.
It suggested the creation of a UK Council on Child Internet Safety, which would develop a two-fold strategy aimed at better regulation and better information and education. The Council would help to make the law on the subject clearer and explore better law enforcement response. A specific suggestion was that all computers sold to homes should carry easily operable parental control software, and ISPs should advertise and offer this when customers sign up.
Google lends a hand
Against this disconcerting picture of the Internet’s adverse impact on children, there is some positive news of governments the world over and some IT giants initiating action to check the trend.
For instance, the UK government, in an attempt to prevent paedophiles from grooming children on the Net, proposes communicating names and e-mail addresses of all registered child sex offenders to social networking sites so that the latter are barred from accessing such sites.
Also, in countries such as Brazil, with a large number of Orkut subscribers, Google has agreed to share private photo albums on Orkut with the police, in an attempt to bolster criminal investigation. Google has claimed that it has now in place, more effective image filters than before, in order to prevent uploading of child pornography.
The software developed by Google is stated to have a pattern recognition ability to sort and identify files containing child abuse material. Studying all these endeavours one gains the feeling that there is now abundant recognition of the perils of the Net to children who surf. Ultimately, however, the success of all exercises will rely heavily on educating parents and teachers on how to recognise danger and keep their wards away from it. Any long-term strategy, government or private, cannot succeed without such instruction.
The writer is a former CBI Director who is currently Adviser (Security) to TCS Ltd.