The responsibility of policing children's access to the internet can weigh heavily on the shoulders of parents. That very modern problem of having a single channel into the home that delivers education, entertainment and social interaction alongside pornography, profanity and bullying is being tackled on many fronts, by websites, software companies, ISPs, charities and government. But the monitoring of online activity, and the installation and maintenance of parental control software, is still a burden borne by the parent.
However, a new British ISP called Tibboh launches today with the aim of relieving parents of some of that burden, by classifying web pages according to a ratings system accredited by the BBFC that we're familiar with from the world of film: U, PG, 12, 15 and 18. And if Tibboh rates a website as 15, its filters will prevent your 12-year old from accessing it. The idea of implementing film-style classifications to online gaming was a key recommendation of a government-commissioned report in 2008 by Professor Tanya Bryon. But ratings for websites themselves had remained unexplored, save for a vague intention stated by the ISP TalkTalk back in September of last year. Tibboh has thus managed to steal a march on the main British ISPs by being the first to work closely with the BBFC. This initiative of theirs, coupled with the "filter at source" concept that's only generally used by ISPs to block child pornography sites, should prove attractive to those parents who, as Andrew Cooke at the BBFC puts it, "find themselves in the unenviable position of having to lay down the law in a digital universe they barely understand".
How does it work? Tibboh offers a mobile broadband package via Vodafone, so the internet is accessed via a USB dongle, or a SIM card for a mobile device. Each child in your household can have their own login and password to access a BBFC-rated internet experience that you, as a parent, have deemed appropriate for them. Social networking sites aren't available to under 12s; teenagers can't access illegal download sites; obscene music lyrics are also filtered for the very young; all in all, three billion web locations have been rated, with thousands of new assessments made daily. One core technology employed by Tibboh is Netsweeper, a government approved filtering system that's used in many British schools; this sits alongside Tibboh's own Filtersafe Plus, which blocks attempts by "adventurous children" to circumvent the system. Circumvention is one of the key worries of parents seeking an effective filtering service.
Hamish Thompson, a parent from St Albans who has spent the last decade wrestling with these issues says "Kids have remarkable technical prowess. They have the innate capability to find ways around restrictions. And even if you, as a parent, manage to keep on top of the software, there's a good chance that they'll go to a friend's house and access the web there instead."
In many households the child is the resident IT specialist, with access to passwords and knowledge of web workarounds, such as proxies, that are little more than a black art to adults. (Tibboh, for their part, claim that most proxies have been identified and restricted.)
David Miles, Director of the Family Online Safety Institute, broadly welcomes Tibboh to the market. "There's no doubt that parents are looking for a commonality between DVD or videogame classification and the net," he says, "and Tibboh should be commended for this." He also points out, however, that filtering systems are not without their flaws, as many teachers have found when trying to access material at school that's related to their own teaching syllabuses. "Useful websites will be filtered, no doubt about it," he continues. Miles also stresses how so-called Web 2.0 is radically altering the challenges faced by those looking after the welfare of children online. "The battleground has shifted in the past five years," he says, "because the relatively simple process of filtering material coming in now has to deal with stuff going out, because young people are creating material of their own." The most prominent example of this is on the social networking site Facebook, which has been criticised over its refusal to implement a "panic button" that can take children to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) website if they encounter anything alarming. Facebook did answer some critics last week by announcing measures to improve child safety – namely £5m of advertising space devoted to education, better reporting procedures and improved algorithms to detect predatory behaviour. While CEOP, whose relationship with Facebook could be described as strained, are still campaigning for the panic button, Tibboh have cleverly solved the problem by overlaying a CEOP button on every website that children browse. But David Miles regards the panic button is something of a red herring. "We support Facebook's view that it's a fear-based approach that sets the wrong tone. And there's not that much evidence to indicate that panic buttons work. Sometimes children can be willing participants in the problem, and wouldn't click on a button even if it was present. "Tibboh's immediate challenge is to be trusted as an online chaperone in the same way as McAfee, whose parental control software is provided free by many British ISPs. David Miles's conclusion is that while Tibboh's service looks "pretty good", education and open discussion with children about the unpleasant side of the internet is the crucial element that binds the technology together.
And the parent's view? Hamish Thompson: "Keeping track of internet filtering, all the passwords and the various restrictions, is tiring and incredibly hard to keep on top of. So to me, yes, it sounds like a good idea."
Keeping up standards
* The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), is a self-financing non-governmental body. It has regulated the film industry since its creation in 1912 and employs about 80 people. Funding for the organisation comes from the fees it charges to classify material.
* The BBFC gives films and DVDs a rating from Universal to 18, working its way through some 14,000 films and videos every year. Video games that are particularly violent or graphic used to fall under its remit, and it did ban titles, such as Manhunt 2 in 2007. Now, the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) system is used, following a decision by the Departure for Culture, Media and Sport last year.
* The people who watch and examine content are drawn from a variety of different industries, including teaching, social work, psychology, marketing and the media. They are required to watch a minimum of 5 hours 20 minute a week, and a maximum of 35 hours.
* The examiners rate the things they watch based on a set of guidelines, and their decision is then ratified by a senior examiner. Local councils have the final say on banning and reclassifying films, and can overturn the BBFC's decisions if they want to. One of the most notable examples of this came in 1997 when Westminster City council banned the film Crash. However, they adhere to its judgements for the most part.
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