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Aus gov dredges up cuter panic-button for kids online

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Salvation for children who feel threatened, harassed or bullied on the internet may be close at hand, in the shape of a user-friendly dolphin-shaped "panic button".

That appears to be the upshot of discussions now taking place in the Australian Federal Government’s consultative working group on cyber safety. While their approach does have its detractors down under, this solution appears to circumvent a number of political difficulties that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) has encountered in the UK.

The idea is to create a button that parents can download and install on their children's computers: if they then encounter serious trouble online, one click on the button would instantly connect them to police or child protection groups.

According to Hetty Johnson, chief executive of Bravehearts, a support organisation for survivors of child sexual assault: "The decision hasn't been made - it's still in the discussion stage - but I think we're getting pretty close.

"There seems to be a consensus of opinion that this is going to be very good."

One candidate strongly in the running to provide the technology is Hector's World, a non-profit group from New Zealand dedicated to providing interactive educational resources for children, as well as helping them to stay safe online.

While the UK's CEOP makes use of Hector's World in its offering to younger children, its overall approach is quite different. It provides a similar "panic button" facility (see top right on their home page), which not only has the ability to link any user instantly to advice and support from CEOP, but also offers direct links to a total of ten different sources of help ranging from Childline to Beatbullying.

Unlike the Aussie cuddly animal approach, CEOP has opted for an abstract and slightly sinister combo featuring a stick figure and a Sauronic all-seeing eye motif. It has had difficulty persuading social networking sites to incorporate the button into their screens - while Bebo has agreed to do so, Facebook and MySpace remain pointedly absent from the party.

They argue that the panic button sends users away from the sites and their internal safety teams. A spokesman for MySpace UK was recently reported as saying: "It's crucial that social networking sites can monitor activity on their platforms so they can review and improve safety procedures."

Clearly there are issues with both approaches. Any solution that requires parental support is likely to fall foul of the fact that in many households, the tech-savviest individuals are also often the youngest.

However, relying on large corporate social networkers – especially those based outside the UK – to amend their offering to comply with UK laws may be a slow process. Moreover, a site-based solution will do little to provide support or protection where a new form of interaction or a new site becomes suddenly fashionable among younger people.

The best approach for those who believe in a technological fix for the evils of the internet would be a belt and braces one, as recommended by the Byron Review, which would see parents and site owners as just two groups involved in coming up with solutions, along with other stakeholders.

We asked CEOP why it had not yet devised a downloadable application approach, seeing as its site-based button was available in 2006. A spokeswoman stated that CEOP's energies to date had been focused on social networking sites, but it was now actively looking into the creation of a downloadable application.

More fundamental criticisms of this approach are levelled by sites such as slashdot, which questions whether the degree of nastiness out on the internet is as great as those who are part of the victim support industry like to claim. Similar questions have been raised in the UK, particularly in relation to assertions made by Beatbullying as to the scale and the definition of online bullying in the UK.

However, in talking to El Reg today, a spokeswoman for that organisation confirmed that there ought not to be any difficulty in making available the figures that underpin their recent report on cyberbullying. ®

Bootnote

Flipper was an American television programme about the adventures of a highly intelligent and protective dolphin broadcast in the mid-Sixties. Flipper's friends included a pelican named Pete and a dog called Spray. The voice of Flipper the dolphin was over-dubbed using a recording of an Australian kookaburra bird.

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