Creating a safer online environment for children

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Creating a safer online environment for children
– By Katharine Bostick
Picture this scenario, working parents leave behind their ten-year-old son with instructions to finish his homework and keep the doors of the house locked while they are away. Once they are out the door, the boy rushes to his PC-his only other companion at home-and his window to an infinite world of games, movies, and cartoons. Neither his mom or dad nor his school has provided him with any guidance regarding his use of the computer and the Internet; he has only learned from his online and offline friends. For the next four hours, the ten-year-old is online, chatting with friends, surfing cool sites, playing online games, listening to music downloads, and researching key facts for his science project. He races through layers of fast-paced information while interacting with many people online-both familiar and anonymous Internet friends. His newest online anonymous friend is, in fact, a 40-year-old sexual predator who targets children by pretending to be another child, chatting with kids, playing online games, and “sharing” a photo of “himself”-a kid playing football. The predator convinces the ten-year-old to log on to an animated chat room where the two can “play” together in virtual space. He asks the boy to send a photo, too; so the boy sends a recent picture of himself in his school football uniform. With this information (the boys’ name and the school name), a savvy researcher can, in a matter of minutes, learn where the child lives-a mere two hour car ride away. The predator also learns that the boy is home alone four hours a day, from 4pm to 8pm, five days a week. Continuing his online chat, the predator is confident that it will be easy for him to meet this boy in the real world in a short period of time….

Although the above story is fictitious, the reality is that the online world harbors some alarming threats to young Internet users today. There is no question of the educational opportunities and benefits the Internet provides for our children. Everyday, children use the Internet to learn, explore, innovate, and communicate in healthy ways. Unfortunately, however, the Internet is also being used by predators and cyber offenders who prey upon the isolation and the innocence of naive Internet users. Online crime targeted at children requires our full attention.

The exponential growth of the Internet is largely driven by children and young people. Yet though our children may be technologically adept, they may not be fully aware of the dangers they may face-or have the maturity to address them. Meanwhile, some parents are largely unfamiliar with the Internet, feeling intimidated by the technology. That lack of familiarity means that they may not fully appreciate the dangers that their children encounter online. You may recall that in my fictitious story, the boy’s parents cautioned him about keeping the doors locked, but did not provide any advice related to online threats. Some guidance from parents on Internet safety will remind kids to think about safety online, just as they think about it when they play outside or cross the street. It is important that parents make an effort to learn to use the technology used at home to ensure that their families stay safe online-every time any household member logs on.

According to NCRB reports, the proportion of cyber crimes is increasing. In India in 2005 alone, cyber crimes increased 38.6 percent over 2004. These figures include cyber crimes against adults as well as children, and do not include unreported cyber crime offenses; nevertheless, the numbers suggest the extent of the threats we face. Data shows that children using the Internet are potential targets of pedophiles and stalkers; are exposed to age-inappropriate, illegal, and harmful materials, such as child sexual abuse images, pornography, and unwanted software (spam); are subject to harassment, intimidation, and cyber-bullying; and may be tricked into downloading viruses and spyware. Thus it is important that we reflect on ways to create safe online computing environments.

Four components-public awareness, effective legislation, international co-operation, and technology solutions-are essential for maintaining a safe online environment for children.

At Microsoft, we recognize Internet safety is a priority, and since we launched the Trustworthy Computing initiative in 2002, we have been working to build in as many safeguards as possible to create a safe online computing environment for young people to explore. While there is no substitute for parental guidance, technology tools can provide parents with guidance to provide a safer online experience for children.

Our commitment towards providing a secure online environment for children and our support for parents can be found in the new built-in parental controls in the Windows Vista operating system and Microsoft Xbox video game systems. These parental controls enable parents to easily and confidentially manage access to content, regulate when and how long children can use the computer, limit Web sites and programs that can be accessed by children, restrict PC games based on title, content, or Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings, and get daily reports that detail their children’s online activities and other computer use.

Technology must be part of the solution, but there remains an ongoing need for governments and the tech industry to work together to raise public awareness, enact appropriate legislation, build capacity for law enforcement, and secure international cooperation to protect children. At Microsoft, our initiatives are focused on partnering with global agencies to ensure a collaborative approach to security issues. We work with governments, industry, law enforcement agencies, and consumers to build partnerships focused on public policy, education, and enforcement. These efforts are aimed at delivering a safer virtual journey for our users, especially children, to support them in using technology more effectively for education, empowerment, and entertainment.

Ensuring Internet safety for children is a responsibility that must be shared broadly among parents, industry, government, community stakeholders, and youth. Given the magnitude of the potential harm, we must work together to effectively protect children-and in this case there is no single solution. But informed parents and teachers who communicate with children, using available technology tools, and providing adequate supervision, are clearly keys to any solution.

(The writer is head of Internet Safety Enforcement in Asia, Microsoft Corporation)