Kindle – porn slips in under the radar

 

My wife and I often used to set off on holiday with a suitcase each of clothes and a third one of books which typically weighed more than the other two combined. Not any more. Two “e-book readers” do the trick, in our case Amazon’s Kindles. My Kindle is about the size of a small paperback, is only a few millimetres thick, weighs ounces not pounds and fits neatly into a side pocket of most of my jackets. It can carry up to 3,000 tomes although I have yet to reach 100.

I am totally hooked on this wonderful gadget. Discovering that I could have documents sent to it via email was a facility I thought might also be useful but in fact for me it rarely is. Still it’s always there as a backup should I ever be without a mobile or a laptop.

Parents buy Kindles for their kids

Hoping to encourage the habit of reading large numbers of parents have been buying Kindles for their children. I know of at least one very famous public school where almost every modern gizmo is frowned upon, but not the Kindle. It is applauded.

Kindles are internet enabled. They can connect either using built in WiFi or 3G. However, until recently I had thought the slender slab was only able to reach a single destination on the internet. That was Amazon’s “Kindle Store” where all you could then do was download books. Doubtless the great majority of solicitous Mums and Dads thought likewise. We were wrong. Wrong on several counts.

For one thing Kindles have Google’s search engine incorporated into them. When I entered a couple of not-hard-to-guess search terms I was immediately presented with a long list of porn sites. Clicking on them took me to their home pages. These contained images which were extremely graphic, hard core.

Not Technicolor but…..

The images were “only” black and white stills but I’m afraid the detail was unmistakeable and unavoidable. I made my virtual excuses and left. The Kindle would not play any of the many free pornographic videos that were also on offer. This is because the device can only handle a limited range of file formats but no way should any images of the kind I saw have been available via this route.  What was Amazon thinking? Perhaps it wasn’t.

I say this not least because the situation could have been very easily avoided. Google search comes in three flavours: no filtering, moderate filtering and “strict”.  Had Google search been set as strict no porn would have been able to get through and I would probably not be writing this blog.

No one could have any objection in principle to Kindle providing Google search on their e-book readers. I can see its potential usefulness. But in the circumstances I can see no justification at all for Google being on without it being set to strict by default.

What about other e-book readers?

I decided I ought to see if the Kindle was alone among e-book readers in allowing this kind of access. I didn’t want to have to buy all of them to take to my (non-existent) computer laboratory so I went into a major branch of PC World hoping to be able to check them out there.

Naturally I wore a false beard, sun glasses and a hat but I eschewed the dirty raincoat. It is such an obvious give away. Anyway, long story short, in PC World every device was locked down by filtering software or was running only demos. As a result, dear bibliophile, I was unable to see what the other e-book readers were capable of in their native state. It’s pretty obvious that too many men in false beards, sun glasses and hats have been going into PC World to undertake similar investigations but perhaps without the same virtuous intent. Well done PC World for taking steps to counter that even if, on this occasion, it defeated my mission as a super-sleuth.

Undaunted, I talked to the sales staff

Since I couldn’t complete my research in the way I originally intended I turned to speak to one of the store’s sales staff. I told him I was a parent thinking about buying an e-book reader for one of my children but I was keen to know beforehand if I needed to install any controls to block access to unsuitable adult content. The salesman assured me there was no need to have content controls of any kind on a Kindle or indeed on any of the other e-book readers because they were “only e-book readers”. PC World staff trainers please note.

A portal to porn?

When anyone thinks about a Kindle I’m guessing they tend to think about the generally wholesome benefits of books. OK, I know “books” can take you to many different places but what won’t spring into people’s minds when they think about a Kindle is a portable portal to porn. I mean it’s not as if there is a huge shortage of other ways of finding porn online. Does it also have to be bundled as part of a package and linked to a device which ostensibly has and is sold as having quite a different purpose? This is a clear example of porn slipping in under the radar.

If the availability of porn through a Kindle was more widely known parents might think twice about buying one and handing it over to a child. Thus, until this situation changes, at the very least Amazon needs to do a lot more to make sure parents who might be buying Kindles for their children are aware that this functionality exists.

Moreover, if Amazon won’t set the default on Google search to strict it should at least be possible for users to change the settings to that status. Right now it isn’t. Take a look at the Kindle user guide or Kindle’s general help page.  In it you will find nada. Zilch. Niente on the subject.

Amazon speaks

I emailed Kindle’s support desk to ask if, despite there being nothing in their manual, there might nonetheless be some way I could adjust Google’s settings. I got a reply which I’m guessing had not been carefully and individually crafted by a sentient human being who had been fully trained in the art of customer relations. My auto-respond electronic epistle simply ignored my question and advised me to use the other browser that is available on the Kindle. Not bad advice but not quite the point either.

I read the manual

I struggled on and did what no self-respecting techie would ever normally do (so please don’t tell anyone): I read the manual, the user guide referred to above. On page 10 it  tells you how to make images on your Kindle larger, but it doesn’t tell you how to make them disappear.  Hey ho.

Page 12 of the user guide is called “Getting more from your Kindle”. It tells you how to “customize” your Kindle’s settings. Sadly this “customization” does not extend to explaining how you might customize pornographic or other undesirable web sites out of the Kindle altogether.

I abandoned the user guide and resorted to direct action.  By messing around with my Kindle a bit more I did eventually discover a way to turn off access to images. This took a while and more than a little nerdy determination. It shouldn’t have. Information about how to do this ought to  be presented prominently.

However, while being able to turn off access to images is good with porn sites it is not only the images which give offence. A great deal of the associated text is highly objectionable, and most assuredly it is unsuitable for children.

Amazon’s 1-click system

When I was researching this story I came across a great deal of online discussion in the USA about Kindles providing access to inappropriate content. It was not so much the Google angle that people talked about over there, although that was mentioned in a small number of cases. In America people were getting hot under the collar about Amazon selling porn via the Kindle. Selling porn indiscriminately to anyone.

Selling books was Amazon’s original or core business. The Kindle is first and foremost a way of doing just that. The hardware is heavily subsidised precisely in order to entice people into buying one in the expectation they will subsequently start splashing the literary cash.

In order to help you part with your money more easily and quickly, in the set up process Kindles normally become linked to a method of online payment. Presumably in the case of a child the associated payment method would usually be a parent’s credit card although as far as I know Amazon does not verify its customers’ details so it could be a child with their own plastic passing themselves off as an adult.

Either way the card will be integrated into Amazon’s amazingly convenient 1-click payment mechanism. In this context, however, what this means in effect is that any kid with a Kindle can buy and instantly download anything that is on Amazon’s list of e-books. That list includes a great many volumes which are not in the least bit appropriate for children.

Did this not occur to Amazon? It is true that, in theory, to have an Amazon account and therefore to run a Kindle you are meant to be over 18. But the company must or ought to have known their hardware is in the hands of large numbers of minors. Realistically, as things are set up now, how can a typical parent supervise their child’s use of a Kindle?

Of course we all speak to our children about them needing our permission to do this or that, or about the importance of them talking to us before they embark on a particular course of action, but in real life it doesn’t always work out that way. Amazon should be helping parents not acting as co-conspirators in undermining their authority.

There was some chat in a number of US online forums I visited about disabling Kindle’s WiFi or 3G access, or de-registering the Kindle so nothing new could be bought, but these were put forward as inspired “work arounds” that people had conjured up themselves. It ought not to be that hard. At the very least Amazon should have anticipated that parents might like the option of disallowing the purchase of certain categories of books until their children reach a certain age or they judge them to be mature enough.

This sorry saga illustrates once again how hardware manufacturers and software developers far too often simply do not consider the child safety dimension of what they are doing. They don’t think things through, or if they do they come to entirely the wrong conclusions. Oddly enough, though, these lapses almost invariably err on the side of income maximization, for them that is. They rarely make a mistake which results in their revenues being reduced.

Kindle calamities

One person’s income maximization is someone else’s income minimization. You are never going to guess what has been happening! This too has been much discussed in the US. Yep, because a payment mechanism is more or less intrinsic to the operation of a Kindle, it seems some children, having found this out, have gone on major spending sprees which were only discovered after the event when their parents’ monthly credit card statement arrived or the bank rang up to tell them there was insufficient funds in their account to cover the credit card bill which had just been presented.

Maybe the parents concerned were a little slack to allow this to happen. As already mentioned, Amazon can properly point out that the Terms & Conditions for their accounts make plain that  only  persons over the age of 18 are allowed to be customers. But how hard would it have been for Amazon to think their way to a point where they acknowledge that parents buy Kindles for their kids and therefore that these kinds of things can happen? Could they not have come up with something or other to help parents avoid or mitigate the different types of excesses being discussed?

What is the scale of kids’ unauthorised covert online commerce?

In a blog I wrote last year I referred to a report published in 2010 which showed that kids between the ages of 7 and 16 in the UK had spent £64 million pounds online without their parents’ knowledge, typically through surreptitious use of a PayPal account or credit card. That was one in seven of all online transactions undertaken by youngsters in the age group. I’m guessing Amazon must be in there among the companies that benefited from this covert commerce.

What about other popular internet enabled devices?

Going back to my earlier theme while I was in PC World I decided to try  various of the new tablets that were on offer: iPads, Galaxy Tabs and so on. Very popular with kids and slowly usurping laptops. What were the default settings on these internet enabled devices?

Once more I found that PC World had installed filtering software on every one of them that was being displayed in their shop. Foiled again. My investigations were thwarted. Ten out of ten to PC World for thinking of that angle.

Very obviously if PC World had worked out that filtering ought to be turned on by default on the devices when they are offering them for sale this sort of makes the case for similar software being on by default on the very same objects when they actually sell them. I believe PC World is sympathetic to this point of view, or certainly they were at one stage, but of course it requires the hardware manufacturers to co-operate and with few exceptions hitherto we have seen little sign of them doing that. This must change.

It’s all about seamless safety

Which takes me finally to a theme I floated in my last blog: “seamless safety”. Parents should not have to worry when they buy any new internet enabled device for their children  that they need to start jumping through complicated hoops to render it as safe as it can be.

If a gadget can be connected to the internet the defaults should be family friendly, child friendly from the very beginning. Belt and braces, ISPs and WiFi providers likewise should make the internet connections they supply family friendly, child friendly by default. Yes the defaults on all or most devices and connections should be capable of being changed to allow adults to access any legal material. I am not in favour of censorship.

But I am even less in favour of commercially driven or any other kind of enterprise robbing children of their innocence by exposing them to some of the materials which are all too readily available in cyberspace.

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was a appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
This entry was posted in Amazon, Default settings, E-commerce, Google, Kindle, Pornography, Self-regulation. Bookmark the permalink.

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