Technological limits of parental control over the Internet

Michele Crudele


The need for an effective parental control over the Internet is a world wide issue, after some cases of paedophilia were diffused by the news agencies. Pornography is nowadays widely accepted all over the world as a “normal” cultural expression. There have been attempts to distinguish it from erotism, which is supposed to be the artistic or the allowed side of it. Actually the two words are almost synonymous and they refer to the stimulation of sexual desire out of the natural sexual conjugal relation between a man and a woman. Regulations for pornography are still in use, especially in order to protect minors.

Internet is a means of communication out of the control of any national legislation; therefore it has been, since the very beginning of the World Wide Web (when images started to be transmitted in an easy way) the best way of diffusing pornography to a much wider audience. The offering of pornography over the Internet goes from commercial sites to maniacs or just people “showing off”.

Parents realize after a while that the danger from exposing their children to unlimited Internet access can be very high. They often refer to paedophilia as the biggest risk, but there are also those who try to give a correct education to their children by avoiding any immoral activity. Parents are aided by “blocking software”. The oldest systems are based on lists of unwanted sites, constantly updated by the providers. There are different levels of blocking, according to the users’ criteria.

PICS and its RSAC implementation are an interesting approach to partially aid parents in protecting their children against immoral content. These rating systems are based on the behaviour of the site manager who is required to rate the content of his web site according to specific levels of decency or violence. Unfortunately very few, compared to the millions of sites on the Internet, are using PICS. Some content providers see PICS as a way of attracting more clients, because if they rate the site as Very dangerous, they may expect people looking just for the most exciting offer. PICS can also be used by a third party, which rates external sites and sells the rates to blocking systems. The latest browsers implement the PICS system.

More recent blocking systems analyze on the fly the content of all retrieved pages, much in the way virus scan software does. They rely on a proxy and the client should not have the chance of bypassing it in order to get full protection. The limit is the language, as the analysis is done by measuring the weight of immoral words in the page context. This allow not to block positive content, dealing with immoral topics (just like this paper). It is not feasible to write a system covering all world languages. English alone is not enough, but also adding French, German, Spanish and Italian is not sufficient. For example Swedish is a diffuse language over the Internet. The Altavista list of 25 searchable languages should be the minimum required.

The most secure approach for a parent is to give their children access only to some pre evaluated and trusted sites. While this somehow limits the intrinsic value of the Internet as a system without boundaries, it can be a valuable solution.