The London office of international law firm Faegre & Benson LLP is working with the Federation Against Software Theft to raise awareness of the potential liability for government, local authorities and schools if schoolchildren install unlicensed or otherwise inappropriate material when participating in the "Computers for Schools" programme.
Over the past two years the government has invested a substantial £200m in computers for disadvantaged children, but the initiative is not supported by any statutory measures to ensure appropriate compulsory monitoring is in place so that use of the computers remains within the law and children are protected from pornography and paedophilia. The government has also spent £120m on the "Laptops for Teachers" scheme for which there is similarly no statutory obligation to put measures in place to ensure that use of software is appropriately licensed.
All computers that are part of the "Computers for Pupils" scheme could benefit from sophisticated filtering and monitoring software. However, this is not a statutory requirement and Faegre & Benson questions whether this issue should be addressed, not least to provide some protection against children viewing harmful content online.
Faegre & Benson points out that local authorities and schools involved with the "Computers for Pupils" scheme have a duty of care to take all reasonable steps to protect children against deliberate or accidental access to unlawful or dangerous material on the web. Failure to take such steps could give rise to a claim of negligence from parents.
Lack of monitoring of computers used in schools or given to teachers and children could also give rise to lawsuits for copyright infringement if software is not properly licensed, or if computers are used for illegal installing of other content such as music and films. Managers, governors and head teachers may be personally liable if they are aware of misuse and ignore or condone it.
Michael Evans, an information technology expert at international law firm Faegre & Benson says:
"It appears that some schools and local authorities resist spending money on monitoring the computers they are handing out to children and teachers, because it is not mandatory to do so. Young children are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their use of the Internet and unless there is an appropriate monitoring system in place, schools may be running a substantial risk." Julian Heathcote Hobbins, Senior Legal Counsel at the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) says:
"The Internet provides a world of possibilities and is an exciting and informative place for young children to explore and enjoy, but we must do everything we can to make sure that this is a safe environment. This means that there is a duty of care on parents and education practitioners when children are at school or at home. It is therefore important for schools and local authorities to be aware of existing software, that it is licensed correctly and in accordance with the law."