Technology, Public Policy
and Their Limits

When discussing online safety for children, it is important to recognize two key components of the topic: the technology upon which many online safety tools are based, and the public policies in place designed to ensure public good and well being. Both of these components offer advantages for online safety and both present limitations to ensuring that children are perfectly safe.


The task force reviewed and discussed four technology models designed to help protect children online: filters, monitoring software, information agents and alerts, and age verification. Multiple vendors provide a variety of these products. Some work well, others less so.

Model 1: Filters

A filter is both loved and hated. When it prevents a child from coming across inappropriate content, it is great. When it is incompatible with a business transaction it is not only counterproductive but also costly. Parents, while praising a filter's effectiveness to stop a child's inadvertent access to pornography, can also be confused and frustrated by instructions and settings that differ from product to product. Educators admit that young people can often get around filters and fear that public reaction to just one negative incident could be enough to end use of technology at school. And if that negative incident did occur, the legal ramifications are unclear because case law for school situations related to the Internet is not well established.

Content that should be filtered out must first be indexed into a corresponding database. If it is not indexed in, it cannot be filtered out. In the end a filter can only be as good as its design and data. By definition, it will never eliminate 100% of the inappropriate content.

The following is a sample of the limitations connected with the purchase, installation, and use of filters:

Current Situation
Parents want to purchase a filter No standardization or benchmark exists to differentiate an excellent from a merely good or mediocre product.
Filter installation in the home Youth often install computer and Internet tools for untrained or uninformed parents and when doing so bypass the protective settings.
Default settings in the home When set incorrectly the default can result in a total G-rated experience, limiting adult access to more mature and perhaps enriching content.
Default settings in schools Overly restrictive settings chosen by some school systems often lock out harmless and valid educational materials.

MODEL 2: Monitoring Software

Monitoring software serves as a complement to or as a substitute for filtering. This software will track chat, email, web sites visited, downloads, etc., and in some versions allows parents or monitoring personnel to follow children's activities in real time, and to take control of those activities. Its strength is that through transparent access it provides an atmosphere of accountability; its weaknesses are the ease by which it can be hacked and the time it takes to review all of a child's online activities on a routine basis. For older children, monitoring software may have an impact on the trust relationship between parents and children.

MODEL 3: Information Agents and Alerts

Information agents and alerts, such as Google Alerts, RSS feeds, etc., are tools that allow users to search and gather content based on personal specifications. The alert searches defined terms and provides users with a link to the specified content that has been posted on the Web, allowing the user to seek its removal. In the Web 2.0 environment, agents could potentially be programmed by parents to follow a child's movements and actions. If the child attempted to post or upload information defined by the parent as inappropriate, such as a personal phone number, the agent could intervene to ask, “Do you really want to do that?” The agent becomes both a monitor and a conscience.

MODEL 4: Age Verification

Age and identity verification technology attempts to prevent youth from accessing adult or problematic content or certain youth sites outside their own age group, and to keep adults and possible predators or bullies from violating children's safe spaces. Often, verification involves a user reporting their birth date, or entering credit card information. Other technologies currently in use to verify children's ages are expensive, unavailable for widespread use, and can be compromised in some of the following ways:

  • Youth and adults lie about age and fabricate identity information to register on sites restricted by age.
  • Kids often have access to parents' credit card information and can use that to circumvent some verification strategies.
  • Technology developed to detect youth by slang expressions associated with specific age groups is ineffective.
  • Sensitive personal data held by a site to validate a child's age could be subject to fraud.

On the adult side, the issues with age and identity verification become even more complex:

  • Adults seeking to do harm lie about age and identity.
  • Decisions must be made about whether to even allow any adults on youth sites.
  • Some trusted adults might enhance the online experience for youth, but how are they to be identified when most crimes against children are committed by acquaintances perceived as trusted?
These examples are only a fraction of the issues surrounding age or identity verification. For a detailed report on this topic, please see the research, discussions, and recommendations in the Berkman Center's Internet Safety Technical Task Force.

Policy, Legislation, and Individual Rights

When challenged to establish a safe environment, often the first inclination is to ask that regulations be established. In the U.S. 32% of the homes have children.1 How are children to be protected in those homes while the other 68% of homes are allowed and encouraged to access and utilize legal content? The following tenets must be accepted when reviewing policy, legislation, and rights:

  • Tragedy, fear, and media coverage, rather than facts, often drive policy.
  • The online safety issue is nonpartisan.
  • There is substantial public concern that safety tools are not as effective as they could be.

Where technology allows for new freedoms and creative abilities it also produces situations that test the Constitution, the ethics of business, and the patience of parents. How many parents know that their 16-year-old has a constitutional right to safe sex information? How many teens know that it can be illegal to send (via the Internet or mobile phone) a semi-naked picture of themselves to their boyfriend or girlfriend (a relatively new phenomena known as “sexting”)? The scope of issues that deal with rights, law, and policy is vast. Some of the issues include:

  • On the Internet, content harmful to minors is the hardest to regulate.
  • Many Web sites with dangerous or disturbing content exist in other countries and are beyond the scope of U.S. regulation.
  • Many social networking sites are places where minors and adults can interact.
  • At-risk youth pose a different and greater set of challenges.
  • Some Web sites drive traffic to themselves through deceptive means, such as intentionally using misleading meta tags and descriptors.

Privacy laws regulate the type of information that may be collected and how that information may be used. To address growing concerns from privacy advocates, policy makers, and government regulators, a number of steps have been taken.

The task force looked at gaps or limitations in policy and practice that impact the online safety of children. One major challenge in that regard is many real world laws do not necessarily exist or apply to the digital one.

Examples of discrepancies

Regulated or illegal


Child pornography imagery Violent speech
Online obscenity (based on community) Foreign Web sites

What should adults be required to do to protect under-age users? The following are a few examples of what issues must be addressed in order to keep minors safe:

  • Access and screening:
    • Adult chat rooms accessed by credit card transactions must continue to offer a high confidence level that the entry is limited to adults.
    • Providers should continue to have the prerogative to screen and manage content according to company and publicly-announced guidelines.
  • Privacy:
    • How does one protect young people who make themselves vulnerable when they share passwords and move in and out of each other's e-mail accounts and Web sites?
  • Other issues to address:
    • How can industry fulfill government requirements for managing user online activity without assuming the role of police?
    • Legislation enacted in the fall of 2008 empowers the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and Department of Education (ED) to study children's online safety. Can four agencies moving independently yield first-rate, coordinated, efficient, cost-effective, and timely results? And what role can and should industry play in these efforts?

Technology is constantly changing but our overarching core values must remain constant. Rather than becoming fixated on a one-size-fits-all legislative response to the problem of the day, attention must be focused on those core values. Best Practices lead us in this direction. They provide the most direct potential benefits, because they empower the private and nonprofit sectors to create solutions and allow government to focus on broad policy guidelines rather than detailed, prescriptive, onerous or problematic laws and regulation.

1. US Census Bureau, 2008 Statistical Abstract of the United States.