The internet is not an easy place to regulate. Often a small amount of technological know-how is all it takes to circumvent the barriers put up by concerned authorities. A simple browser extension gets around the ISP porn filter introduced by David Cameron late last year, and Australia’s A$84m (£47m) version was broken by a teenager within 30 minutes. That said, there are ways in which the law can – and should – be adjusted to make life safer for vulnerable young people, many of whom have unfettered access to dangerous and damaging material.
One obvious example concerns grooming. This week, as part of our Caught in the Web series, we published a call from charities and campaigners to update the law so that, when groomers attempt to lure underage boys and girls into sexual dialogue, one strike is enough to secure a prosecution. As things stand, groomers need to have contacted a child twice before legal action can be taken. This lags behind the methods they employ – which involve sending hundreds of messages out at once in the hope that one or two “bite”. A simple reform could block an activity that has already had a painful impact on young lives.
Another fix to help put parents’ minds at rest would be the inclusion of sites that promote self-harm and suicide among those already blocked by the ISP filter. Yes, some children might find their way around it, but many more – especially those first drawn by curiosity – are likely to direct their attention elsewhere. It is easy enough to leave known sources of legitimate support and information outside the filter.
Education is the other area in urgent need of an update. A computing curriculum will be introduced into schools this September; acknowledgement of digital literacy’s importance should extend to teaching the young in quite specific terms about the methods that groomers employ online – and the dangers inherent in sending any sexual material over the internet, or via smart phones.
For all the concern over what happens online, it’s important to remember that most of the dangers young people face occur primarily in the real world; bullying is still far more prevalent in schools than on the web. The urge to drive through new laws should be resisted. Adjustments can be made within the existing legal framework that will help curb the internet’s worst excesses.