Filth, smut and conmen;Computers for beginners

29th January 1999 at 00:00
The Internet opens up the whole world to your classroom or home. But since it is largely unregulated, it can also be exploited by conmen, propagandists and pornographers.

The Internet may be may be today's communications technology. But the sorts of questions familiar to historians about the reliability of yesterday's sources still apply. Who posted the information? For what purpose? And how did they know it was true? Computers do not yet come with built-in crap detectors.

There are a number of computer programs designed to filter out racial abuse or smuttier web sites. By most accounts they are not 100 per cent effective, however, and the usual advice about testing software for its suitability presupposes that you know what to look for and how. You also need to be prepared to find it.

Internet chat lines may also attract some pretty unsavoury correspondents. But since they are as likely to be on the other side of America as the other side of town, the likelihood of being lured to a hazardous rendez-vous is less than with the similar culture around CB radio and telephone chat lines. Netpals section on RM's website (www.eduweb.co.uk) advises children on safe networking.

But, as some organisations have found, it is not only children who abuse access to the Internet. At least one local authority has beeen moved to warn staff they will face disciplinary action if they use its computers for:

* visiting obscene web sites * distributing such material * subscribing to newsgroups not connected to work * accessing chat sites * playing Internet games * sending electronic chain letters * downloading software in breach of copyright * conducting transactions for gain.

Today's computers tend to store much of what is accessed on the Internet, if only temporarily. And as some of those prosecuted for downloading child pornography have found to their cost, removing all traces of it from the computer memory can be difficult. Everything you do on a school network is likely to be logged. Making sure your pupils - and your colleagues - understand that might be the deterrent needed. Or schools could develop explicit contracts on Internet use and abuse (see www.acitt.org.ukaup.html).

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