Utter the ubiquitous "I" word Internet and you'll get three responses: it is the greatest technological advance of the late 20th century, destined to revolutionise our lives; it is a major yawn, crammed full of nerds searching for a life; it is a tool of the Devil from which children must be protected at all costs.
The last response has gained enormous currency in recent months. The popular press and quality papers have run thousands of column inches on the perils of surfing. Child porn, adult porn, instructions on how to make bombs, how to engage in auto-eroticism (a potentially fatal practice, as in MP Stephen Milligan's case), the finer points of glue-sniffing, rants against the black and Jewish world conspiracy and why we should all have the freedom to carry guns are just some of the Net's offerings that have been whipping up a frenzy of paranoia, moral outrage, medium-level concern in the media and, consequently, among parents and teachers.
The simple, rather banal fact is that the Internet is only as bad and as good as society itself. It is a mirror, a microcosm of the people who pour things on to it. The Net has no personality of its own. On it are sites for museums and galleries, areas of academic research, science, geography, medicine, newspapers and poetry, reflecting the enlightenment, creativity, understanding and generosity of the global village and its inhabitants. There are also sites dedicated to the proselytising of fascist dogma and hate politics, the sexual abuse of children and women; the exploration of the ugly, violent back alleys of that same global village.
As schools are required by law to act in loco parentis to under-16s, they are understandably concerned to avoid the seamier web sites. Enter CampusWorld, British Telecom's "walled garden" that provides schools with a hand-picked corner where they can explore specific educational tools and areas geared to the curriculum. Explains BT's Mark Pryor: "Campus World sits on the edge of the Internet, acting as a safe haven in which to wander around. This service gives you the Internet without the nastiness."
An interesting counterpoint to BT's safe haven is the Internet for Learning service provided by leading schools PC supplier Research Machines. RM was quick to move into schools communications and stole a march on BT it now has more than 1,000 subscribers and has even connected school networks to the Internet. One school has leased a line at a fixed annual rate so that 30 of its computers can be linked at any one time and for as long as they like. During the evenings they can be used by the community as a "cybercafe".
But RM is not building walls. Continuing BT's garden analogy, RM is doing a spot of weeding by restricting access to the pornographic newsgroups (see opposite).
Most educationists agree that the Internet needs controlling for school and home use. Professor Harold Thimbleby of the Department of Computer Research at Middlesex University has attracted attention as a vociferous exponent of controls. "Most children are sensible enough not to run into the road. But some do. And at the moment, there is nothing like a 30-miles-an-hour speed limit on the Internet," he points out.
In a recent speech at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Professor Thimbleby called the Internet "a heavily used red-light district . . . (in which) too few people are providing any other interesting or useful services." His research on Internet use worldwide found that nearly 50 per cent of surfers were looking for pornography. Their searches are not in vain: Professor Thimbleby found that about 10 per cent of shops on the Net sell "erotica" and the same percentage of bulletin boards were pornographic. The material varies from graphic Penthouse and Hustler soft porn to harder material, some of it involving children. And there are any number of hateful diversions along the lines of the Concentration Camp Kommandant game, in which you get points for killing Jews.
But does this mean the Internet should be censored, a la CampusWorld, for young viewers at school and at home? Mary Marsh, headteacher at Holland Park Comprehensive School in west London, is ambivalent. "I agree that we need a garden within this jungle. But I'm concerned about making the walls too high," she says. "The moral certainty of some people who say that here are boundaries beyond which people shouldn't go is very patronising.
"We're entering an age where any censorship or control is disappearing. Unless we make arbitrary decisions about what is permissible and what isn't, we're not going to stop it. How we communicate responsiblity of how to use the Internet is no different from that for videos, films, magazines, etc. What we as educators and parents have to do is equip children with the necessary compasses and machetes to get through the jungle in order to find what they need. "
Those tools come down to education, formal and informal, at school and in the home. It is an obvious approach but we have not heard much about it, thanks to all the hysteria being whipped up and "solutions" to that hysteria coming in the form of "censor" software (see opposite).
Jenny Brown of the National Council for Educational Technology explains: "Whenever we get new technology in education, everybody is excited first about the technology itself. Then after a while they look at what use it is to education. Then gradually they say what we need is skills of critical analysis in order to use it. That's what's important in all this. If parents really want to help children to use the Internet, they should be concentrating on developing their critical skills, getting them to think about 'Who's giving me the information? Where are these facts coming from?' " The NCET has a Computer Ethics Steering Group that is working on these issues and produces leaflets for schools. The group consists of representatives from education, including the Department for Education and Employment, parents groups, and even Scotland Yard's Serious Crimes Squad. One of the members is Diane Wright, chair of the National Council of Parents and Teachers Associations. While she worries about the inappropriate material that children can access without difficulty and supports the idea of some control, she is also concerned about "restricting their freedom to explore". "Without that exploration, it just becomes an encyclopedia on the screen," she says. "If they are given a service that says 'no, you don't need this or that because it's not in the national curriculum' that's not what it's about. We shouldn't tie kids' hands behind their backs. "
At the moment, the emphasis is on the home. Cost (with CampusWorld more expensive than ordinary servers like CompuServe) and technical limitations mean most of the 1,200 schools subscribing to the Net are confining it to teachers' use, according to Martin Kilkie, chair of the National Association for Co-ordinators and Teachers of Information Technology.
Even when more lines are installed, the use of the Internet is likely to be supervised in schools generally in libraries and IT rooms. Surfing in dirty waters can be done while a teacher dashes out for a coffee, but the room for manoeuvre is limited. Even so, the organisation, together with Research Machines and ICL, has drawn up a draft policy for acceptable use. It is based on the United States model, which is a contract between parents, children and the school. In Mr Kilkie's words: "It makes the children aware of the advantages and dangers of the Internet and asks them to take responsibility for their actions which in turn necessitates school discussions on what is acceptable."
Rather than recoiling in horror, educationists are having to grasp this particular nettle with pedagogic creativity. David Benzie, of the Centre for Information Technology in Education at St Martin and St John College, Plymouth, says "one of the issues facing society is helping people make positive uses of technology rather than using it to debase human nature. It's reasonable to assume that as children grow up and develop, you gradually teach them to handle their own moral decisions about what to read and do. We have to add an electronic dimension to children's development so that they can handle this technology."
* CampusWorld: 0345 626253
NCET GUIDELINES ON COMPUTER PORNOGRAPHY Be vigilant and make it clear to pupils that you have systems for tracking computers and files.
* Let pupils know that unauthorised use of equipment and breaching the rules (such as loading and saving material on to discs from outside school) are punishable. * Think about offering different levels of access. The first could be controlled access to sites previewed by a staff member. Next could be to introduce e-mail and supervised open access. Then you could move to total open access.
* A combination of software and passwords may help to prevent pupils stumbling across undesirable material. Ask your service providers for advice on what is available.
* The police should be brought in to deal with obscene publications or unlawful copying.