Government advice: Browse safely with Microsoft
Today is Safer Internet Day and in the UK, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) is promoting two ideas to make the web more secure for children. The first is an animated film aimed at helping children aged five to seven to stay safe - Ceop says eight in 10 of them now use the internet. The second is a joint initiative with Microsoft.
The software giant has produced a special Ceop-flavoured version of its web browser Internet Explorer 8 which will give parents and children easy access to advice and information. Microsoft came to the government body with the idea and the browser will be promoted on the Ceop site and as an option when you download IE8 in the UK.
Once the browser is installed, users will have a Ceop button on their toolbar, enabling them to seek help or even report abuse. A spokeswoman for Ceop explained that the browser didn't include any filtering system - she said they weren't very effective - so a child would still be able to visit any sites if parents hadn't used another blocking method.
This may well be a useful tool for parents, but it also looks like great marketing for a browser which has had some bad publicity lately and has lost some of its dominance to the likes of Firefox and Google's Chrome. Ceop insists that as a public-sector body, it can't direct people to one commercial product - but is warm in its endorsement of Microsoft's efforts. "We work very closely with Microsoft," the spokeswoman told me."They have been ahead of thinking in this area."
Last year Ceop reached a deal which saw Bebo agree to use its abuse-reporting button - and then lambasted other social networks which refused to follow suit. This time, the organisation is being more diplomatic, with its boss Jim Gamble saying: "[W]e look forward to working with other browser developers to make an even safer online environment for our children."
Google says it has been talking to Ceop and "we're working together to help them make a Ceop browser extension available for Google Chrome users". Apple wasn't clear whether there had yet been talks about a similar extension for its Safari browser - IE8 isn't available to Mac or Linux users - but stressed that parental controls were built into its whole operating system. And since there are already hundreds of extensions for the open-source Firefox browser, built by third-party developers, it should be easy to provide a child-safety plug-in.
But open-source campaigners are concerned that Ceop has been just a little too eager to promote the Microsoft solution.
"Microsoft have scored a publicity hit for a little cost," Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group told me. "It's important that Ceop doesn't persuade people to use a single browser, particularly one which has had a history of security lapses causing other threats to home users."
Microsoft has a good record in helping to promote safe internet use in schools and homes - and Ceop is working hard to educate parents and children about internet safety. But despite government pledges to promote the use of open-source software in the public sector, it seems most official bodies still see Windows as the natural choice for any project. And that means open-source government is still a distant prospect.