CHILDREN AT RISK: by Richard EganNews Weekly
Protecting children from Internet porn
, June 19, 2004
Pornography on the Internet - in particular the ease and frequency with which children are exposed to pornographic images - is a major contemporary problem.
It has prompted the tabling in Federal Parliament on May 13, 2004, of the long-awaited Review of the Operation of Schedule 5 to the Broadcasting Act 1992. The review examined the effectiveness of the present system for regulating objectionable content on the Internet and considered the feasibility of alternative approaches.
In early 2003 the Australia Institute released a paper demonstrating that 38 per cent of 16- and 17-year-old boys were deliberately using the Internet to see sexually explicit material, while 84 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls had experienced unwanted exposure to sexual material. The Australia Institute called for more regulation of Internet content.
In November 2003, staff from the Child-at-Risk Assessment Unit, Canberra Hospital, reported that exposure to pornography on the Internet is one significant factor in children younger than 10 years old sexually abusing other children.Abusive behaviour
In the first six months of 2003 the Unit had identified as many as 48 children under 10 years of age who had engaged in sexualised, sexually abusive behaviour. There has been a dramatic escalation in the reported incidence of this type of behaviour since the mid-1990s when staff recall an average of three children per year coming to their attention with this problem.
Most children in this category had accessed pornography on the Internet. For 25 per cent of these children, deliberate viewing of pornography was their main use of the Internet. While several children first came across pornography on the Internet accidentally, 25 per cent of the children had been shown how to access pornographic images by another person.
Unit staff presented a case study of a nine-year-old boy, Steven, who first came across Internet pornography accidentally. He tried to avoid it until he saw his mother's current de facto partner (her fourth since Steven was born) watching pornography on the Internet and concluded that this was an acceptable activity. He then got involved in viewing pornography. Soon he was making his four-year-old half-brother, Deacon, act out homosexual acts with him. He also made younger girls at school participate in sexual acts with him and threatened to hurt them if they told anybody.
While Steven certainly had significant social and developmental problems, the specific expression of these problems in sexually aggressive behaviour with younger children was shaped by his exposure to graphic sexual images on the Internet.
Any realistic solution to this problem must involve filtering, at either the national or Internet service provider (ISP) levels, of online content of a sexually explicit nature (equivalent to R-rating and above, in print and film classification schemes), regardless of the origin and location of the website, be it Australian or overseas.
The present scheme relies on a very limited use of "take-down" orders by the Australian Broadcasting Authority that only applies to Australian-located websites.
Offensive overseas sites are simply added to the lists on the filtering software that each end-user may choose to install on his computer. This, of course, does nothing to protect children like Steven, who are already living in vulnerable situations.
Tragically, the review considers that mandatory filtering at the ISP level would be effective, but too expensive! It estimates costs of $45 million for set-up and $33 million annually for maintenance of the scheme.
In his media release launching the review, Minister for Communications, Daryl Williams, seemed to concur with this view. He said: "The review of the Online Content Co-regulatory Scheme found that, while some types of server-level filtering are technically possible, mandating them would be excessively onerous and limit filter performance. It also found that Internet safety would be improved by more active promotion of filtering technologies by Australian Internet service providers (ISPs)."
Australian parents, and anyone concerned for the well-being of Australian children, should urge the Government to reconsider this position.
Mandatory filtering at an ISP server level would cost just $10 per user set-up costs and $7.33 annual fees. The simplest and fairest scheme would be for the Government to invest the initial $45 million in the interests of Australia's children and then to administer a levy scheme to ensure the costs of the ongoing filtering are shared equitably among end-users.
It may be, as the report itself admits, that these prices could be brought down through competitive tendering between vendors of filtering software.