Free tools to keep kids out of dodgy websites

Free tools to keep kids out of dodgy websites

SINGAPORE - In a move to protect the young, parents are soon to be offered free filtering tools to block out objectionable websites.

Internet service providers (ISPs) will be required to make the offer to their broadband and mobile subscribers under proposed regulations, according to public consultation documents posted on the Media Development Authority's (MDA) website yesterday. ISPs typically charge $2 to $5 a month for such a service.

The new requirement is part of the media regulator's plan to improve parental controls as the popularity of mobile devices gives the young easier and quick access to dubious websites.

Also, MDA does not "want cost to become a deterrent to decision makers," said its chief executive officer Koh Lin-Net at a media conference.

But parents may still be charged for extra features, like monthly reports on the websites visited.

According to the documents seeking public feedback on ways to improve parental controls, the MDA also wants people to give feedback on whether they prefer an opt-out option, where parental controls are switched on by default.

This is similar to legislation in Japan and Britain that are aimed at protecting the young.

The MDA, however, thinks an opt-out measure will be "burdensome" on ISPs and will "lull parents into a false sense of security". The better alternative is for ISPs to get subscribers at the point of signing or renewing a broadband or mobile contract, to state whether they want parental controls.

"By consciously signing off on something, parents can remember better," said Ms Koh, adding that a "low" awareness of the availability of Web filtering tools is a problem today.

This has resulted in the "low" 100,000 subscriptions to these tools, despite efforts to get ISPs to market filtering tools more aggressively.

Since February 2012, it is compulsory for ISPs such as SingTel, StarHub, M1 and MyRepublic to "actively promote" Internet filtering tools to new or repeat subscribers of fixed broadband. It was extended to mobile subscriptions in June that year.

ISPs who flout the rules can be fined, suspended or have their class licence cancelled by the MDA. None has been warned or punished so far, it said.

Most parents welcome the new proposals.

Housewife Sakura Siow, 40, was unaware of the filtering tools. "But I'd use them if they are easy to use," she said. Her two girls, aged four and 10, watch videos and play games on their iPad tablets.

Similarly, realtor Eelaine Ng, 40, is not aware of the filtering tools. "My kids have chanced on dirty dancing videos on YouTube," said Ms Ng, whose two sons are aged three and five.

But there are limits to what filters can do. For instance, they cannot filter objectionable games and apps in valid websites. "For a valid website like YouTube, the filtering mechanism has to be very sophisticated and will probably not be offered free," said Mr Michael Tan, 44, director of an IT firm.

When contacted, the three major ISPs and mobile operators - SingTel, StarHub and M1 - said they will review the proposals and provide their comments in due time. SingTel added that "it is challenging to provide a completely child-proof filtering service" as new adult content is constantly uploaded online. StarHub noted that "there is no substitute for active parental supervision".

The consultation ends on May 9.

itham@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 22 in The Straits Times.

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