Web Phones: Cause for Concern?
The expected avalanche of Internet-enabled wireless devices is causing some concern. Operators rolling out high-speed 3G and GPRS phone networks are being warned that they must put safeguards in place to prevent a spike in child pornography.
"The Internet is about to go mobile on a large scale, supported by new sophisticated telephone handsets. Almost all the issues of child safety on the Internet that exist today become much more complex when the Internet goes on the street," UK charity group NCH warns in a new report.
The Internet age has already seen a dramatic increase in child pornography because it has given pedophiles new ways to reach and abuse children, the report says. In the UK, for instance, the number of people investigated by the police for child abuse images increased 1500 percent from 1988 to 2001, according to the report.
Now, with the emergence of Net-enabled phones, rights groups face new concerns over supervision, tracking, and access, says John Carr, Internet consultant for the NCH and author of the report. While parents are able to monitor their children's Internet activity while at home, they have no way of supervising their children's Net surfing habits on mobile phones, Carr says.
What's more, young people are typically early adopters of new technology and are likely to be some of the first users of 3G handsets when they begin to arrive in full force in many European countries later this year, he says.
Access is another concern raised by the report. Theoretically, anyone with an Internet-enabled phone will be able to access adult content such as gambling and pornography sites. NCH and other charity groups want operators to put measures in place that will assure that users accessing adult online content are at least 18 years old.
A spokesperson for Vodafone Group says Monday that the main operators in the UK are well aware of their concerns and are working together to release a code of practices on the sale and use of Internet-enabled phones.
According to a UK representative with mobile operator Orange SA, the code will be released "within days."
Much of the concern surrounds pay-as-you-go phones, which do not require a service contract. Contractual phones require a credit card or other billing information that ensures the customer is an adult.
Pay-as-you-go users will likely have to prove their age when purchasing handsets. Phones intended for minors may have filtering or blocking software to keep them from accessing adult content sites, the Vodafone representative say.
Paolo Pescatore, senior analyst for IDC in the UK, says that in order for the operators' efforts to be effective, they all must adopt the same guidelines. Otherwise, users limited by one service will simply switch to an unfettered service.
But while mobile phone operators have been left with the onus of making sure that minors do not access inappropriate material online, law enforcement officials could also be left grappling with potential new difficulties when tracking offenders, according to Carr.
Officials currently use IP addresses as a means of tracking and identifying offenders. Carr fears that with the anticipated explosion in the number of Internet-enabled devices over the next few years, there will not be enough IP addresses in the current system to be able to track them all.
"If IPv6 [Internet Protocol version 6] was fully available, every grain of sand on the planet would have its own IP address; but as we all know, that hasn't happened yet," he says.
IP version 6 is the latest level of Internet protocol, designed as an upgrade to the current IPv4. One of the big advantages of IPv6 is that it lengthens IP addresses from 32 bits to 128 bits, allowing more devices to have their own distinct address. While many products now support IPv6, full transition to the protocol is still underway.
Still, the issue of insufficient IP addresses appears to be in the distance; for now, operators and rights groups are focusing on who can access and send what on their Net-enabled phones.
Many of the concerns raised have already been brought to light by the booming popularity of camera phones, Pescatore says, which have been flagged as a threat to privacy given their inconspicuous form. Now that users can snap pictures and send them immediately to the Web, these concerns have only been heightened.
The industry needs to "find new technology-based solutions to help police and others in dealing with the new types of Internet misuse that are emerging," the NCH report says. Otherwise, no one knows what the long-term effects will be of minors exposed to age-inappropriate or sexually explicit material, it concludes.