The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) has warned that universal blocking of websites, searches and content is not a realistic or effective way to combat online child abuse.
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Speaking in the wake of a mass arrest of suspected paedophiles in a major police operation, Martyn Thomas, chair of the IET’s IT Policy Panel, said: “Contrary to popular belief, universal blocking of websites, search terms and content is a blunt and ineffective tool and can be easily circumvented.
“The serious offenders are likely to already be using encryption and other technical means to hide their activities, which blocking by ISPs will not affect.
“The internet was designed to withstand serious damage and it treats censorship as damage and provides routes around it. That is not to say that internet providers don’t need to be vigilant or that they should ignore this very important issue. But ultimately there is no universal fix they can implement to protect victims. Instead it is more investment in sustained crime investigations like this one that lead to the greatest reduction in harm,” said Thomas.
This week’s arrests across the UK saw 660 people taken into custody, including authority figures such as doctors, teachers and police officers, and over 400 children taken into care.
Meanwhile, the government today launched the Friendly Wi-Fi scheme, which it claims is the world’s first public Wi-Fi accreditation scheme.
The service is designed to verify whether public Wi-Fi hotspots meet minimum filtering levels to block out access to undesirable material, and was first proposed by prime minister David Cameron in a 2013 speech to the NSPCC.
Businesses will now be able to display a ‘Friendly Wi-Fi’ logo on their premises to give parents peace of mind when it comes to allowing their children to use the internet, said digital industries minister Ed Vaizey.
More on the IET
Claire Lilley, head of child online safety at the NSPCC, said it was “very reassuring for parents to know that when they see the 'Friendly WiFi' logo they can allow their children to go online in safety”.
“However, as with any filtering measures, it's vital not to be complacent and we urge parents to talk to their children about what they get up to online and what to do if they have any concerns,” she said.
Companies that have signed up to the scheme at launch include Starbucks and Tesco. The supermarket chain will be displaying the Friendly Wi-Fi logo on its login screens and in stores and cafes across its estate.
Andrew Uden, category technical manager at Tesco, said: "As the UK's leading retailer, it's important we do everything we can to make sure children are properly safeguarded in our stores. 'Friendly Wi-Fi' means parents can be safe in the knowledge that we are doing all we can to make sure unsuitable content is not accessible through Tesco wireless networks. This will be made clear to customers by the display of the 'Friendly Wi-Fi' logo in our stores."
Purple WiFi, a supplier of hotspot solutions to businesses, already provides filtering options to customers, using the Internet Watch Foundation’s blacklist.
“We are committed to educating Wi-Fi providers about the need for safeguarding against inappropriate content being viewed over public networks and the importance of meeting minimum standards. We fully support the Friendly Wi-Fi scheme, and will encourage our partners and customers to get involved and support it too,” said CEO Gavin Wheeldon.