MeitY tests parental control app; industry body recommends it in new devices | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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MeitY tests parental control app; industry body recommends it in new devices

Mar 16, 2024 10:30 AM IST

The app will allow parents to set up content filters for their children’s phones, get detailed YouTube activity insights, manage how much time a child spends on each domain, and block age-inappropriate content

The ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) is currently testing an app called “SafeNet” which will allow parents to set content filters for their children, access their live location, and access their calls and messages, said people familiar with the matter.

There are also concerns regarding the parental control apps such as overall safety and well-being of children and privacy of children from their parents, excessive content censorship. (Representative Image)
There are also concerns regarding the parental control apps such as overall safety and well-being of children and privacy of children from their parents, excessive content censorship. (Representative Image)

At a November 2023 meeting convened by the Department of Telecommunications, an industry body recommended that mobile, computer and laptop manufacturers should preload this app by default. The progress made after the December meeting will be reviewed in a meeting on March 18.

The SafeNet app has been developed by the Centre for Internet Studies and Artificial Intelligence (CISAI) of the Kerala-based Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham with research and development support by MeitY.

“MEITY has developed an application named ‘Safenet’ for parental control for PC/tablets/mobile phones for use by parents which is under testing. All the participants were served with document of Safenet, provided by MEITY, to take their valuable comments immediately so that MEITY may launch (including uploading the App on Google Playstrore [sic]) the App at the earliest,” said the minutes of the meeting convened at Sanchar Bhawan on November 23, 2023. HT has seen the document.

As per the minutes of the meeting, the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) suggested that this app should be “uploaded by default in Mobile/Laptop/PC etc. by manufacturer itself”. The industry body requested MeitY to “take appropriate action with respective manufacturers”. ISPAI’s members include Airtel, Vodafone Idea, Tata Communications, ACT Fibernet, and Hathway amongst others.

In the meeting, the DoT told the participants, which included representatives from DoT, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), Reliance Jio, Airtel, Vodafone Idea, MTNL and Excitel that the “PMO has directed to ‘incorporate parental controls in data usage’ by 31.7.24”.

In the same meeting, the Department of School Education was requested to issue instructions to all schools through their respective boards to raise awareness on parental control filter (PCF) solutions through display boards, parent teacher meetings, WhatsApp groups between parents and teachers, and other tools of communication.

The DoT also asked the licensees to raise awareness about parental control through SMS, ring tones for subscribers, sending emails to subscribers at least quarterly, and displaying fliers at points of sales.

At a previous meeting on this issue on August 29, 2023, it was decided that MeitY may “arrange to develop” an app for parental control. During the August meeting, it was also decided that telecom service providers (TSPs) and internet service providers (ISPs) would “provide details of configuration in mobile/computers with regard to parental control on their website through PPT/short videos, etc.” The TSPs and ISPs were also asked to “suitably educate” their subscribers about use of parental controls while providing SIM cards and fiber connections. The deputy director general of telecom in the DoT was to ensure compliance from all licenced ISPs through their licensed service areas (LSA) pursuant to a DoT letter dated August 21, 2023.

What does SafeNet do?

According to the app’s website, the app allows parents to set up content filters for their children’s phones, get detailed YouTube activity insights, manage how much time a child spends on each domain, and block “age-inappropriate” content.

If the parent and the child use the same phone, both versions of the app --- meant for the parent and the child --- can be installed on the same phone.

SafeNet has also set up three custom domain name servers (DNS) with a graded approach to filtering so that schools can block more than 70 million domains and more than 34 categories through the “primary” DNS while colleges and research organisations can block more than 40 million domains and more than 21 blocked categories through the “secondary” DNS. The “ternary” DNS “allows everything except terrorism, nudity, and porn” and blocks more than 4 million domains. HT has not tested these filters yet.

“Such apps, if widely available on all devices, without verification of legitimate parent-child relationships can also lead to incidences of intimate partner violence, so enough safeguards need to be built to avoid abuse of these tools as well,” Aparajita Bharti, founding partner of The Quantum Hub (TQH) Consulting who has worked extensively on protecting children online, said.

Apps meant for parental control are often used as “stalkerware”, that is, used by abusers to monitor and track their victims without the victim’s knowledge and consent.

“Countries around the world are exploring device level parental controls. However, there are competing concerns to be balanced such as overall safety and wellbeing of children and privacy of children from their parents, excessive content censorship,” Bharti said. She warned that for deploying such tools, it is important to address “unintended consequences” by engaging with child rights experts, educators, adolescents, and civil society organisations who work with children in distress.

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