Each Australia Day invites us to reflect upon how well we are living our shared national values. My reflection this year is on how to support parents who are trying to protect our young from violent and pornographic internet web sites.

The rights of parents to protect their children

Australia values every parent and child as a human person.  We believe that parents have particular responsibilities to their children that give them special rights.

One is the right to supervise the upbringing of their children – and to protect them from harm. Another is the right to hand on values such as respect for others.

A current Commonwealth Government initiative to assist parents

Currently, the Commonwealth Government is seeking to assist parents with the exercise of both these rights.  It is trying to ensure the safety of the internet for children by blocking web sites that promote strong violence and pornography.  Currently trails are underway to test the effectiveness of such blocking.

Research shows that most Australian parents believe pornographic materials are harmful and ought not to be accessible to the young. It shows also that pornographic internet material can become addictive.  It is an additional addiction danger young people face today.

Voluntary Internet Service Provider (ISP) filtering

Many governments in western countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, block ISPs that promote strong violence and pornography.  Australia has a lot to catch up in this regard. Also, in some countries ISPs themselves have initiated self filtering of materials that are illegal or harmful to children.

The Commonwealth Government’s initiative will help advance Australia in internet protection. It will require the same level of safety from the internet web sites as is required already of movies, books and other materials.

My personal research starting with teenage interests

To help older people, like myself, appreciate better the problem the Government is trying to address, I offer lessons from some research I did in preparation for this statement.  Not being really of the internet generation, and mindful of potential criticism that people like me do not know what they are talking about when discussing such topics, I decided to undertake an internet experiment of my own.

My research started with internet material that might be of interest to teenagers and then to see where the internet would lead them.  Starting with You Tube, I began internet searches focussing on sports stars, actors and movies young teenagers might be interested in.  I then tracked related videos suggested by You Tube to see where they might lead a teenager at home alone during school holidays.

Soon I was led from a well-known movie, which included a mild torture scene, to web sites presenting torture.  Other sites I was led to presented violence, sexual exploitation and suggestions to young teenagers that sexual feelings towards others of the same gender should be followed.  From my previous experience in education, I know that this is not helpful to teenagers who might be going through a stage of confusion in this regard.

While You Tube filtered out strong violence or pornographic images they considered as unsuitable for anyone under eighteen years, the You Tube filter could be turned off by registering as eighteen years old or older.  Though I never tried this myself, it seemed easy enough for a young person to do.  Personally, some material not filtered out by You Tube seemed to me still to be unsuitable.  I feel sure that many parents and others would agree.

The exploitation of young people

While studying in New York in the United States, I became familiar with the Church’s ministry to thousands of homeless young people.  The majority I came to know had been drawn into organised prostitution through various exploitative means.  The youngest I met was a nine year old boy.

Many had suffered torture by the pimps as well as deviant clients who paid to do this.  Death was the penalty for many who tried unsuccessfully to escape this Mafia controlled industry.  Fear and intimidation were strong everywhere.

Young people who returned to their pimps without ‘earning’ a minimum amount often risked severe beatings.  Many felt forced to act in pornographic movies if they failed to earn this amount on the streets.

Some web sites on You Tube offered introductory interviews with potential actors to encourage viewers to remove the filter to see the pornographic material. In the samples I heard, those being interviewed stated an urgent need for money.  Like the prostitution industry, the pornography industry preys on the vulnerable for financial gain.

Counter-measures against home computer filters

Home computer filters are available today for people to purchase or down-load free to protect families from objectionable internet materials.  However, my own experiences with computer filtering did not work.

On seeking expert advice as to why, I learned that many ISPs invest heavily in filter breaking technology.  This means that parents can install a filter to protect their families from violent or pornographic web sites, but the ISPs can break through the filter and reach curious children.  Is this not a calculated attempt to violate parents’ rights as well as to corrupt children and teenagers for commercial reasons?

Opposition to the Commonwealth Government’s initiative

Some interests are resisting the Commonwealth Government’s internet safety initiative.  Civil libertarians, for example, claim to be protecting the people’s rights to watch what they like – but what about governments’ responsibilities to protect the young, not only from what can be very harmful psychologically but also from what is potentially addictive?  What about the right of parents to protection from aggressive ISPs who use technology to break through home computers against parents’ wishes?

Some argue that the Commonwealth to give young Australians the same level of ISP safety as other countries give their young will slow internet speed.  But even if significant delay was required, should not the protection of our young take priority?

Finally, according to media reports, Australia’s largest internet provider, Telstra, is refusing to participate in trials of the Government’s initiative to block harmful ISPs.  I have no doubt that pornographic web sites bring significant income.  However, if such reports were to be correct, Telstra effectively would be supporting ISPs’ efforts to frustrate parents’ efforts to protect children from objectional internet material.

Any organisation supporting activities that lead to harmful social consequences bear social responsibility for this. Telstra cannot legitimately pretend it has no social responsibility in this area.

What can we do to support the Commonwealth initiative?

As we reflect again on Australian values, let us ask ‘What can we do to support the Commonwealth initiative to block ISPs?’  I would urge people – particularly parents – to discuss the issue with others to help raise awareness.

Also, could we not write to our Commonwealth Members of Parliament, to Letters to the Editor, and telephone talk-back radio?  Perhaps there is scope here for local initiatives by Parish Pastoral Councils.

Finally, ‘What can parents do if computer filters do not work well?’  The generally accepted advice seems to be to always have computers in family areas – never in children’s rooms. By and large, young people are no match for the cunning of computer predators.

I wish everyone a happy Australia Day.
Most Rev Gerard J Holohan
Bishop of Bunbury

20th January 2009