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Safety first in an electronic red-light district

Rather than alarming children about the dangers, help them become 'Net smart'. Roger Frost reports

If there is a block to seeing the Internet as THE learning zone for home and school, it is not just to do with faster phone lines and lower bills. The block is about children finding undesirable material in a place with no X-ratings or 9 o'clock watershed. A US senator even called the Internet an "electronic red-light district" - a unique place where "virtual" adults are virtually unchallenged.

Behind the foaming mouths there are genuine worries, but they are broader, too. On the Internet anyone can publish their ideas, so you can read how to make bombs, commit suicide, avoid drug tests and you can meet racial abuse. That and more is leading people at every level - legal, technical and consumer - to find ways of changing the light bulbs. Some glimmer with hope.

Children create problems, too. As well as exchanging e-mail in some superb Internet language projects, they can also send abuse and demand money from others. They can send mail anonymously - people who are prey to harassment do so with good reason - but this is bullying and fraud back again.

They can visit "chat rooms", where they can discuss work and also, in the excitement, give out their phone numbers. Worse still, they'll not know if they're chatting to a peer or a paedophile.

Alarming as this is, it will be unthinkable not to turn up to tomorrow's classroom. Better to see the perils as clues for our "digital health and safety". Schools are good at this - they've always set guidelines for behaviour and steered children towards what is good in life. So, as well as telling children not to meet strangers, they need new rules and maxims.

At National Children's Homes, the charity for children at risk, they encourage parents to get connected, but it is no blank cheque. They warn of the dangers, tell children to get "net-smart" and offer rules for conduct.

Schools do likewise. Some have an "acceptable use" policy - a sort of Internet driving licence for pupils. It says what the system is and isn't for, and lists the sanctions for infractions. To make it work, they invite parents to awareness sessions to see the power and the pitfalls of the system. The signing of a contract and wagging of a finger can help.

The idea that the problem can be legislated and policed away is making slow progress. The legal problem is a technical one - the system is worldwide, meaning that what can go on anywhere, goes on anywhere. Red-light districts can move home in seconds, while policing the mail is akin to censoring millions of phone calls. Better, says Annie Mullins of NCH, to put a block in the system. As a supporter of the Internet Watch Foundation, set up by government and the Internet industry, she wants the Internet service providers to be responsible for what they provide. While this pressure builds up, the IWF encourages citizens to report illegal material, and so get it dealt with. It will take time to work, but here again is the notion of public responsibility.

Roger Blamire, manager of the communications team at the National Council for Educational Technology, adds that many Internet projects, such as Schools On-line and the Government's Education Superhighways Initiative, have successfully relied on contracts, supervised access and the awareness of what can happen. He adds, however, that things cannot be left to chance. "You need different approaches for different schools - you'd want to avoid accidental exposure to eight-year-olds, while you could simply log and monitor what was going on with older students."

Schools can use a combination of measures. They might use an Internet service that filters material before it gets to their computers. At RM's Internet for Learning, they block access to anything they've found objectionable. Other services, like America On-Line, offer additional software control over chat rooms and e-mail. Things can be got at, so RM stresses that supervision is still required. BT's CampusWorld takes a safer path in allowing access only to sites that they have screened. The result, of course, is that the Internet at large might as well not exist.

Some schools use an open service: they may supervise learners, or make them earn their driving licences. Some also buy control or filtering software to monitor computer activity. With names like Cyber Patrol and SafeSurf, this software prevents access to its list of blocked Internet sites. And because sites move home when they're blocked, it can update the list when it connects.

Some packages scan everything for key words, personal or credit- card details. They can even shut down the machine if there's a breach.

The software can also limit how long children spend on-line and at what times they can do this. It can log the Internet pages seen and the phone numbers called. Some will send you electronic mail if there's a problem. A package called Imagecensor checks the screen for flesh colours, takes a snap of it for evidence, and then shuts down. Annoyingly, it reacts to harmless pictures yet not to black flesh. This is part of a bigger problem, because when control software stops people doing normal work, there's a temptation to trash it altogether.

The future is vested in a system where Internet material is rated and labelled to say what it contains. Based on a way of tagging pages, PICS - the Platform for Internet Content Selection - can ensure that things that are not suitable, or not tagged, never get on the screen. It's cleverer than film ratings too, because rather than rely on age bands, teachers and parents can choose exactly what they want to block - for example, they might block sex, but allow medical or artistic nudity. Again progress is slow: there's a need for an agreed rating system and for most people, schools included, to rate the material they produce.

But warning about the sex can miss some of the scams. Many offer you something for nothing and they do take people in. A friend told how an e-mail message offered a cure for a computer virus, but it turned out to be the poison itself. Another received a mysterious program that refused to load, but it was hidden in the system, ready to mail off the owner's password when the computer connected up again. Passwords, incidentally, are like keys, and losing one can cost you money.

Judging from media scares, I'd guess that more adults have been traumatised by porn than children ever will. It is very easy to see a catalogue of Internet horrors instead of the light of a future learning zone. If there is no sense in traumatising children so they never cross the road, there's maybe some in arming them with street wisdom, belts and braces.

* Roger Frost and Roger Blamire have written about the Internet in schools in a new book from the National Council for Educational Technology. Provisionally titled,"New Highways for Learning", it should be available next term. For more information contact Marketing Department (Highways),NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ.Tel: 01203 416994. e-mail: uk


* Acceptable use policyhttp:www. Schools, 20 Fulham Broadway, London SW6 CampusWorld Cyber Patrol software www.microsys.comcyber


Internet Watch Foundation

National Council for Educational Technology. Tel: 01203 416994www.ncet.

PICS tagging www.w3orgpicsRM

SafeSurf software

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