PC makers consider child-friendly computers

But cyberliberty groups warn computers cannot solve the problem of Net paedophiles

Computer and software manufacturers are responding positively to government calls to market child-friendly PCs, but cyberliberty groups warn against the dangers of a government mandate controlling UK Internet users.

Leading PC manufacturers have accepted a Home Office proposal to support efforts in cracking down on Internet paedophiles, and are considering the option of manufacturing "safe" computers for children that would contain pre-loaded software filters. Cyberliberty groups, however, are adamant it is not the government's role to interfere in software design.

"There is a place for software tools to protect children, but there is no place for a government mandate to enforce the use of this software across the board," said Malcolm Hutty, director for the Campaign against Censorship of the Internet in Britain.

A Home Office cybercrime summit last Wednesday widened the net of responsibility for protecting children online to include computer and software manufacturers and retailers. A new taskforce was announced to included representatives from the Internet industry, child welfare organisations, the police and government, as well as acknowledging the need for PC makers to become involved.

"Everyone needs to get onboard with this -- it is up to PC manufacturers to offer some mandatory software on computers sold," said a spokesperson at PC maker Tiny. "If the manufacturers are tidying up their jobs, it will make it easier for the parents to monitor their child's Internet access." Tiny has confirmed that it is considering plans to pre-install software filters on its PCs, but has reached no concrete decision to date.

"We know it's a serious issue for children, and it makes sense from a business point of view," the Tiny spokesperson confirmed.

Software giant Microsoft has already agreed to join the government's taskforce, and is currently scheduling talks with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to discuss the feasibility of installing safety filters on PCs.

"We wouldn't be part of the government's taskforce if it wasn't an issue that we took seriously," said a spokesperson at Microsoft. "Microsoft is working on many different methods of improving safety for children in IT, and filters is one area that we are looking at when considering the feasibility of what we can do with our own software."

Hutty however believes it would be ludicrous for a manufacturer the size of Microsoft to ship this kind of filtering software, which may prevent retailers from implementing the government's proposal to market child-friendly PCs. "The taskforce should be careful to stay away from the notion that the industry can take responsibility -- parents are the only ones in a position to exercise this responsibility," he argued.

Computers with preloaded software filters would theoretically prevent children from accessing chatrooms containing paedophilic material. Hutty warns there is a lack of transparency in filter products such as Netnanny, which frequently block sites that criticise their product for instance. "The temptation is to go well beyond blocking out most [harmful] content, that would be very damaging to a child's education."

The next taskforce meeting has been scheduled for July. Home secretary Jack Straw will chair the summit, and review the body's success at implementing recommendations made in the Internet Crime Forum report published two weeks ago.

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

Our readers responded to the ZDNet special report "Chatroom Danger" at the forums with many views and opinions on the subject. Jane Oliver has gathered some of them here and poses the question -- Wouldn't stamping out the dangers just take a good helping of common sense all round? Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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