Politicians continually promise to make the Internet a safer place for children and developers write code to filter the Web. But, as in the real world, there is no such thing as 100 percent protection in cyberspace.
There was great interest in German Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schröder's new "Kids' Server" when she presented it at the end of February. The server is made to prevent children accessing certain content on the World Wide Web. The project aims to make it easy for parents to limit the websites a computer can access to age-appropriate content.
While many software packages bearing names like "Net Nanny" and "Cyber-Sitter" are on the market to keep home computers safe, the government Kids' Server project could be used in schools and other places kids meet.
The day after it launched, however, the project came under fire online. Technology portal Heise tested the software and found that net-savvy kids could circumvent the program.
"The filter only works for very young children with no computer skills," wrote Heise. The filter itself worked quite well, porn and video sites could not be accessed. But several right-wing extremist sites got through after searches for "hatred and violence."
The purpose of child protection software
Blogger Torben Friedrich, a member of the Pirate Party, described how to turn off the program in a few clicks. He compared the use of child-protection filters online to a helmet for a child learning to ride a bike saying, "The bicycle helmet cannot protect a child if that child hasn't learned to ride safely and sensibly in traffic." The key issue, he added, was that children need guidance on how to use the Internet safely and under parental supervision.
Well-known German blogger Johnny Haeussler said he saw the situation similarly. In November, he and his wife published the book "Netzgemüse" ("Net Vegetables"), a guide for parents of the "digital" generation. The issue of clean and filthy spaces online is dealt with quite heavily in the book. "No technology, no advice, no mother, and no father in the world are able to protect their children 100 percent in every situation," the book says. And this also applies to the digital environment.
Software needs to be better
Nevertheless, parents do not want their children suddenly to stumble upon a violent video or images of corpses when they are surfing the net. Almost all filters available today have weaknesses - the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems (IAIS) determined in a study of technical protection of minors and ways to improve that protection. Filtering of pornography is quite effective, but there is much room for improvement when it comes to other content that can be disturbing to children and adults.
So-called "shocker pages" are quite easy to find on the net and young people tell each other how to find them. Sven Becker, an engineer at the IAIS, worked on the study and knows how such sites are disseminated, "It has become a schoolyard game to show each other these sites." It is considered a test of courage to see who from the clique can endure how much.
Of course, the producers of child protection software must keep their filters current. This is done according to their own policies. The filter software providers scan the Internet, and also give adults the opportunity to report pages they find inappropriate, which are then evaluated by the editors. The IAIS works closely with providers, to facilitate their filtering work.
The study shows how filters can be improved: Suspicious content is scanned using voice, text, image and symbol recognition. This enables the filter, for example, to distinguish between a self-harming teenager's scarred arms and a similar-looking tattoo.
Other filters identify text patterns and can recognize relationships that consist of single words. For example, anorexia: The filter treats words like "hunger", "thin", "die" and "death" within a text as suspicious - and the software blocks this content. The process is similar with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
Even the best filter can't block everything
"The challenge is to differentiate between glorifying sites and information," Becker said. There are many educational sites about anorexia, and many historical sites devoted to Nazism.
"The technology cannot prevent the wrong content from being displayed 100 percent of the time. But it can help speed up the manual evaluation of sites," he said.
Extremist and violent content spread like a fungus online. But the providers of such sites cannot be made accountable be when it comes to child protection. They pursue completely different interests than shocking teenagers. To keep these groups out of the mainstream, technicians, providers and Internet platforms continue to work to improve the protection of children and young people, with support from the very top. The "go online safely" initiative, the German government and the states are working together with industry to ensure that children stay safe while surfing.