Parents worried about what their kids are looking at on the internet have a new tool in their arsenal.
Crown company Network for Learning (N4L) has released a free safety filter to "make the internet safer for all students learning from home that parents can set up on their children's learning device to block the worst of the web".
N4L, which was created to help schools connect to Ultrafast Broadband (UFB) fibre and manage their networks, partnered with global outfit Akamai Technologies to create its safety filter.
The idea is that N4L filters what students can access on the internet at school, but after hours it's been free reign - unless parents have a commercial filtering system at home (I use Google Wi-Fi, which is very friendly for blocking individual phones, tablets and PCs for set amounts of time, but also pricey).
Parents who want to install the filter should head to www.switchonsafety.co.nz.
The safety filter is backed by NetSafe and the Ministry of Education and has the backing of educators including Wayne Buckland, principal of Northland's Bream Bay College, who says, "We see the safety filter being really helpful for our students and parents. It will help relieve some of the anxiety from our parent community who are concerned about the safety of their children online at a time when there are all sorts of scams and phishing going on."
The safety filter was released on April 14, but a government promo campaign, led by Internal Affairs, only kicked off overnight.
So should you install N4L's safety filter on your kids' devices?
It could be the right choice for you, but there are a couple of logistical drawbacks.
One is that it covers a wide range of devices including MacBooks, Chromebooks, Windows PCs, iPads and iPhones - but not Android tablets and phones; that is, almost any brand of tablet or phone that's not Apple - or more than half the phones.
N4L chief information officer Gavin Costello says Androids could be covered by a future update, but there's no timeline.
You also have to convince your kids to hand over their devices, then wade through multiple screen settings on each to change its network settings so that it connects to the internet via a server controlled by N4L. There is a detailed, blow-by-blow guide on switchonsafety.co.nz, but some are still going to find it a bit daunting.
It's not as user-friendly as the automatic setup offered by the likes of Google Wi-Fi and the family filters offered by many ISPs, but it is free and comprehensive.
The list of blocked sites and services includes those that offer pornographic, gambling, cyberbullying, plagiarism, self-harm and drug and alcohol content.
It also blocks sites associated with viruses, malware and scams, and blocks anonymiser services that can be used to defeat filters.
The list is pre-defined by Akamai. You can't add sites you want to block, but you can suggest them to N4L.
The release of N4L's filter comes at a politically interesting time.
Internal Affairs Minister and NZ First MP Tracey Martin has just introduced a bill that would set up the framework for a government-backed web filter to block clearly defined illegal content.
The received wisdom is that nationwide filter is just too difficult on a logistical level, which is why the UK government gave up a similar bid.
But although it's not widely publicised, Internal Affairs already operates a filter called the Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System (DCEFS) to block websites that host child sexual abuse images. Internet service provider participation is voluntary, but it's installed by our largest telcos, Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees. The filtering happens at the service-provider level, so the government doesn't require any opt-in from individuals for the DCEFS to work.
Shortly after Martin introduced her bill, InternetNZ - the organisation that administers the .nz domain and advocates on digital issues - reiterated its opposition to filters.
InternetNZ's opposition is partly philosophical.
"Legally requiring government filtering of the internet is not consistent with the Prime Minister's advocacy of a free, open and secure internet under the Christchurch Call," InternetNZ group chief executive Jordan Carter says.
And it's partly practical.
"The proposed [government] filters would work at the network level, in a way that is a mile wide and a millimetre deep," Carter says.
"People who want to get around these filters can easily do so by using a VPN [virtual private network], technology that many Kiwis have been using when working from home recently."
And past filtering attempts have shown that a dangerous side effect is the unintentional blocking of sites that are not hosting objectionable material, in at least one case blocking access to email and online collaboration tools, Carter says.
InternetNZ does support another element of Martin's bill - giving the Chief Censor the power to release quick interim decisions. It took the censor a weekend to classify the Christchurch shooting live stream as objectionable, after which internet service providers moved to block sites promoting it.
But as for filters, "They are only a shallow technical solution to deeper social problems that show up online and offline."
Even when they work, filters provide a false sense of security Carter says.
The InternetNZ boss also makes the good point that, on a practical level, filters at the network or device level can't block social media or chat platforms, or individual bits of content that they host. The likes of Facebook and Twitter have many human and AI filters, but still let a lot of nasty stuff, scams and cyberbullying through, if only temporarily.
"Filters cannot effectively block harmful content or behaviours that spread through social networks or online chat apps," Carter says
Costello acknowledges that limitation.
"N4L's focus is on providing safe and secure internet for schools and students; including filtering," he says.
"However, technology is not a silver bullet and needs to be combined with education around responsible online stewardship, provided by parents, schools and organisations like Netsafe."
Crown agencies that can help
• If you have a cyberbullying on harmful contact concern, contact Netsafe, which can contact the likes of Facebook and Twitter on your behalf
• If you have been hit an internet scam or malware, contact Cert NZ, which can advise you and point you to the right law enforcement or IT help contacts