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A modest proposal to censor the Internet

Clean screens for children
PRICKING a bubble is an irresistible urge. About 18 months ago, I met the chief executive of a software company offering a new product to "filter out Internet porn". His suit, like his face, was shiny and expensive, and he was eager to boast of the fact that his product meant that children would not be able to access "pornographic" discussion groups (usually called, in the Net lingo, newsgroups).

He had a computer running the product: and it was true that if you tried to access newsgroups such as alt.sex.pictures, a big sign flashed up saying BLOCKED. However, while I'm not exactly a dedicated hacker, it took me less than a minute to find a Web site that stored all those newsgroups, and their pictures. His face was a picture too: because it wouldn't be possible to just add that site to the BLOCKED list. It's not, of itself, a source of pornography; it simply archives newsgroups - all 28,000 or so of them, from discussions about cats, and fishing, onwards and outwards to the weird realms of alt.sex.extraterrestrial and alt.sex.bondage.particle.physics.

Which is why yesterday's announcement from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers that they want protection for children, and their own members, from pornography which is just "two clicks away" on the Internet, made me think that some lessons aren't easily learnt.

Wary that parents will blame the teachers for what children see on screen, the ATL has decided it's up to teachers and schools to guarantee "failsafe" systems are in place to protect their pupils. So the union has launched its own Internet access package for members, including a so-called "cyber patrol" facility to block off access to pornographic or racially offensive sites.

The trouble with this "filtering" approach to the Internet is that you can't both revel in the usefulness of the Internet, yet try to erect fences on it. There are 320 million Web pages, expanding all the time, and even the best of the many "search engines" (which aim to be an ever-updated index of all of those) only manages to cover one-third of them.

As it's impossible to audit 320 million Web pages, any company claiming that its package blocks every site containing pornography is obviously wrong. Some packages try to filter key words from going out or coming in - which can lead to odd effects when children are doing research about breast cancer or Scunthorpe.

The other solution is to require authors to attach labels to each Web page, indicating what sort of content it has - is it adult, is it about drugs, or sex, and so on. From that, you could surely define a subset of the Internet which is "safe for children".

Sorry, but no. For one thing, it would mean someone having to go back and attach labels to all those 320 million (more, by now) pages. Sometimes the original author is long gone, but the page remains, still holding useful information (perhaps about how clouds form, or why the rock at the top of Everest is marine limestone). Insist on labels, and those useful pages disappear from your children's screens. And what about Websites that generate news cuts across simple labels? Should eight-year-olds be allowed to look at news sites reporting that George Michael was arrested performing a "lewd act"? If not, why are they allowed to listen to the radio, or buy newspapers? If news sites are exempted, then everyone will at once define their Web pages as "news" and show the law to be an ass. Foiled again.

The answer to this problem is both simpler, and more obvious than the ATL and those who would push filtering software on schools have realised. If you don't want children at school to have untrammelled access to the Internet, don't. Create your own instead.

The Government's pledge is that by 2002 every school will be connected, able "to download material from educational databases around the world". What they and the teachers want to do is to tap the useful information out there. The approach to take, therefore, is the same as building a school library. You don't include every book that's ever been published. You pick and choose, focussing on the most useful.

As a child I used to spend lunch hours poring over a series of Time-Life books in our school library, including one about mathematics, which included wonders such as the one-sided Mobius band and the single-surfaced Klein bottle. Why did I read those? Well, the pictures were good, and besides, there wasn't a pornography section.

The Government should put their money into building a network accessible only by schools; it should contain the best material from the Net pertaining to the curricula - and more besides. It could run on its own computers - which would make it faster than the Internet. The content would be known, and it could be expanded as required.

Why duplicate what's already out there? For the same reason as you have textbooks - you're trying to focus unwilling minds on the task in hand. Setting it up will be expensive and time-consuming, but worthwhile things usually are.

Attaching a telephone line to a computer running some filtering software is quicker, and cheaper. It's also ineffective - and creates a wonderful new challenge for the children: hacking their way round the filters. And if I could do it, you can bet that a determined child will.