Minister challenges government on child protection

DfEE takes stronger line on protecting children from Internet paedophiles than Home Office

Learning and technology minister Michael Wills admitted on Wednesday that Internet dangers have now become part of the real world, and challenged the government to take the issue of protecting online children seriously.

The Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) u-turned its decision to provide all children with individual email addresses after being alerted to the threat of Internet paedophiles by TV presenter Carol Vorderman six weeks ago.

"When the Internet first started, it was a lawless place that many people thought was a good thing. As the Internet has become more important, it has become part of the real world -- a world that is dangerous for children," said Wills. "The proper role for government is to make sure the Net is secure. We do have to take our responsibility seriously."

The revised Superhighway Safety pack, issued to schools this morning, recommends addresses for whole classes rather than individual email addresses. The guidance also stipulates that no children be identified by name or other personal details online, and advises that schools think carefully about including photos of current pupils on their Web sites.

"I'm impressed with the speed at which the DfEE has reversed its policy for email in schools," said Vorderman. "I had a meeting with Wills six weeks ago alerting him to the dangers of chatrooms -- he promised that he would act, and he has."

At the release of the government-backed Internet Crime Forum (ICF) report on Tuesday, the Home Office shifted the responsibility of protecting children online onto the industry, challenging all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to monitor their chatrooms specifically created for children.

Although unable to comment on the Home Office's stance, Wills was adamant that the government and industry should be working together to protect children online. "The Internet is changing fast, and all of us have to be constantly vigilant about making sure that the Internet is a safe place for children," he argued.

Cyberliberty advocate Malcolm Hutty, director of the Campaign against Censorship in Britain, supports the anonymity of children on the Internet, but rejects the moderation of all chatrooms. "The ICF rejected a proposal for massive centralised blocking servers, as they would be wrong and ineffective and an infringement of people's rights," he said. Wills did however point out the danger of government adopting this stance. "The state should always be careful about freedom of speech, but you cannot take risks with children," he said.

"Having paedophiles menacing children on the Internet is very bad for business," said Andrew Boswell, chairman of the government group InterForum. "There's a lot we can do in partnership with government."

What are the risks of paedophiles approaching my children through Yahoo! Messenger chatrooms? Find out the details of ZDNet News' investigation in the Chatroom Danger Special Report

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