'Online Safety' and Censorship
A few thoughts and suggestions .....
Firstly, I begrudgingly use the term "online safety", since the computer isn't going to explode and kill your child (Die Hard 4.0 not withstanding ....). If parents taught their kids a few things, such as never meeting people from 'online', never sending pictures without checking with parents first, and so on, the world would be a much safer place. An example: even on a 'play date' where the kids met via traditional means, the parent should visit the other child's home the first, or first few, time(s) to assess risks. Most risks to children have been around since long before the internet, in one form or another.
I agree with Damian, that it's not practical to supervise kids all the time, but some education and specific 'preparation' prior to unsupervised surfing would be a good thing. And the standard rule applies - if your kid's doing it, you as parent need to understand what 'it' is.
I have a distinct aversion to censorship. I believe in shielding children from porn and so on, but respect the right of adults to choose (and frankly, wouldn't want to live in a country where such choices were made for me by government or its agencies). But ratings are a good thing, and ratings for content should be pervasive, IMHO, though I admit this does not completely eliminate the porn problem.
I adopted a 'filtering' solution (completely within my control) that no kid can circumvent inside the home. I got some old hardware (in this case a cheap Compaq desktop off eBay) and installed Untangle (a free - as in beer - gateway/firewall and content filter) that can operate in a transparent mode. Even the updates are free. In my installation, it sits behind a typical domestic router/modem, both in a locked cabinet. No-one can tamper with it and I don't notice any slow-down. It's set to filter porn, violence and so on, remove spam, phish, malware and prevent intrusions. It can stop IM/IRC and other specific protocols both ways and a lot more. It works very well, though I can't claim it's perfect. Keep in mind that filtering is within the parents' control and it can be configured to say, filter the kid's computer fully and log ALL their traffic, but provide the parents' computer unfiltered access. Since the only cost was hardware at about $100, I'd recommend this to anyone who can do the (fairly simple) installation. In a SOHO configuration it's pretty much 'set and forget', so a computer-savvy friend can do it for you. There are other gateway solutions beyond Untangle, though I found Untangle best for my needs.
Unlike home filtering, ISP-based filtering, as proposed by Australia's new Labor Govt, is mandatory, though they say there'll be an opt-out mechanism - I'll wait to see if that's true. The previous PC software filter was always doomed to fail (some say it was just a publicity stunt, anyway). IMHO, the proposed ISP-based filter will err on the side of censorship of legitimate material and as such will also fail (in the task of protecting only children from objectionable material). The problem is you don't know what you're missing if it's censored, so proving there are errors becomes quite problematic. The most disturbing aspect of the ISP-filter is that the Feds will have a say in what's filtered AND there will be no public access to lists or descriptions of what has been filtered out - not even an IP address. This sounds to me like a system that will quickly be abused. Once we start down that slippery slope ........
So where's the balance? I suggest we focus on three efforts: (1) Educate the parents - it follows that educating the children, which remains a parental responsibility, will then be more effective; (2) Provide ratings advice, including a self-rating system (but spot-checked) for most sites, that dovetails into browsers and simple software-filters - I acknowledge that this really only speeds up the performance of filters and doesn't remove the need for other filtering mechanisms such as those employed in robust gateway solutions; (3) If the parent/user so chooses (and I firmly believe that this *absolutely must* be an opt-in system to avoid the insidious creep of censorship), provide ISP-based filtering.
Afterthought: If ICANN had introduced the .xxx domain, and governments worldwide legislated to force objectionable material into that domain, wouldn't that make this situation much easier to deal with? 'Free speech' wouldn't be an issue since anyone could freely elect to see the .xxx domain and then apply their own tailored filtering. Countries where religious laws forbid such material could block that domain outright, and likewise, domestic filters (opt-in, of course) could operate without speed penalty.
And one more thing. Most Australians are not afraid of sex - far from it. Unfortunately, though, a small minority are, and they seem to have the ear of both sides of politics in this country.