Government gives $9m to protect kids from internet nasties

Schools will be able to tweak filters

The government has committed $9 million to ensure the nation’s schools are equipped with adequate firewalls, capable of dealing with both inward and outward traffic, antivirus software, and measures to block content judged to be undesirable in a school environment.

Schools will be given a choice of fully “managed” internet services or partial support for those wanting to manage some of their own services. There are four separate offerings:

  • Australian content-control solution myinternet combined with the managed firewall component of Telecom's Schoolzone product;
  • A managed firewall combined with content screening by local company Watchdog;
  • Content filtering by US-based Surf Control;
  • Computer Associates' Secure Content Manager product which is part of the eTrust suite of products already being used in schools. IBM is the local distributor of these products.

With the first option, the firewalling is done at Telecom. The Watchdog option sites a firewall device at the school but Watchdog manages it remotely from Auckland.

The last two options are intended primarily for high schools, which would typically have existing firewalls installed.

Watchdog says it will monitor and block offensive web and FTP sites, monitor and block attempts to search for pornography, and monitor Usenet newsgroups and block any “offensive” groups. Email is filtered for for objectionable content and messages from “known objectionable sources” will be blocked.

The alternative, SurfControl, has a number of offices in Europe and an Australian presence.

Watchdog lists among the categories it blocks are “anarchy”, including “information regarding …anti-government groups", and criminal skills, ranging from murder to “pyrotechnics” and including “computer hacking, credit card number generating, password cracking [and] surveillance, illegal drugs; gambling, hate and discrimination". It also says it can block obscene or tasteless sites, pornography, and less severe “R-rated”:content, including discussion of “dating, lingerie and swimsuits [or] revealing pictures."

Watchdog also prevents access to anonymous proxy services, allowing a user to hide his or her origin, and “sites which offer archives of Usenet postings.” A filtered set of Usenet newsgroups is available directly.

Education Ministry spokeswoman Christine Seymour says "we have a responsibility to provide a safe internet environment in schools. Schools have the ability to orverride the [protection on a site] if they feel the site is being unnecessarily blocked."

There has been controversy from time to time about overly assiduous or insensitive blocking software in educational institutions overseas, particularly in the US, with some cases ending in court.

Watchdog managing director, Peter Mancer, confirms schools will be able to adjust the filter by adding or removing categories or individual URLs, and Watchdog will assist them in this.

The Watchdog filter is already in use at about 200 schools and the company has had complaints in the past over material that a school thought its students should be able to access.

As an example, Watchdog by default blocks Google's image search engine because the images cannot be filtered by type and there is a risk of encountering unsuitable pictures. Some schools have asked for the engine to be unblocked for a course using pictorial material.

Although Watchdog is a New Zealand company, the database of banned websites it uses is maintained overseas — Mancer declines to reveal the source "for security reasons". Users internationally contribute URLs that concern them as candidates for addition to the database.

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