I just watched a news story from Australia regarding the Internet and its effect on teenagers - especially those who participate in online social networks, searching for others with similar interests. It has caused me to think: When those interests are self-deprecating, how do we as parents find these early-warning signs that are so easily seen by their peers online?
In the story, they discussed filters. They also discussed the ability for children to bypass them easily - most technically-savvy children can. The role of filters today is misunderstood by many - or, more appropriately stated, people today expect too much from Filters. Many years ago when I was working on other client-based software, we had the exact same discussion regarding our licensing mechanism - what was its purpose? We determined that its purpose was to keep the honest people honest, and to provide them with a means to tell when they needed to purchase more seats. As a side-effect, we would also try to make it more difficult for those who wanted to steal the software - but this was not the primary intent of our licensing mechanism.
Filters vendors today find themselves in a similar situation - but with much higher stakes. The filters today are intended to keep unwanted content off of our computers. However, if someone wants to get around the filter and bring that content on to their machine, it certainly can be done. There is a balance between being protecting the computer and being obtrusive and stopping the normal use of that computer. Move too far toward locking down the computer, and people will complain that they can't use it for the things they want (it blocks too much, it slows down my computer, I can't access the Internet at all, etc). Move too far toward unobtrusiveness, and you leave holes for people to exploit to get around the filter.
If people expect a filter to keep a determined individual, child or adult, from being able to find inappropriate content, then they will be very disappointed. As parents, we need to constantly understand what our children are doing online.
Recently, I am more convinced that there are two problems with the current thought process for filters:
1. Most filters are focused too much on keeping pornography off of computers, and simply "monitoring" children's activity, and are not focused enough on actually pro-actively trying to keep children safe from the many new dangers of the Internet. We need technology that will help parents to know what their children are doing online, who they are associating with online, and to provide them with the early warning signs of potential dangers. As an industry, we are failing miserably at this today.
2. Filters alone cannot protect our children. There are so many dangers and pitfalls, and so many strangers waiting to make contact with our children, that a filter cannot stop all of it. Filters keep unwanted content from the machine, but they don't stop our children from talking about suicide with their friends, or finding someone online to open up their soul to when they don't think they can talk to us. If I have a filter on my computer, but my children's friends don't, then nothing will stop them from accessing whatever they want from their friends computer, or from the local library for that matter.
The CP80 initiative is an alternative to filters. It certainly provides a more permanent solution, and one that cannot be bypassed as easily (it is still technology, and there are still holes - people stole porn and movie channels for years when cable was introduced). However, even this solution is focused on keeping pornography and other "content" out of the home - it doesn't address the issue of truly keeping our children safe, and making parents aware of early-warning signs of danger.
What we need is a way to understand what our children are doing online. What social networks are they a part of, what blogs to they actively participate in, with whom do they communicate? How can we get a handle on all of their activities online, and help them to know when they are venturing too far? In the real world, we can see when they are getting too close to the street, or when they are wandering toward a strangers house. In the virtual world, it is much more difficult to detect.
While there is a great need for filters, and there will continue to be, the real problem is in how we get a handle on the vast expanse of the Internet, and what our children are doing out there. The world is truly flat today, and keeping track of what our children are doing in that flat world is becoming more and more difficult.
It is not an issue solely of technology, but of parenting in a new world.