When Ruth Warren’s in-laws offered to buy a computer for her three children, she was both delighted and worried. Delighted, because she believed it would be an excellent educational tool. And worried because she knew it would not be long before her kids wanted to get on the Internet.
“We had heard there’s a lot of awful stuff out there,” says Warren, a homemaker and part-time piano teacher in Courtice, Ont., 50 km east of Toronto. “My neighbor told me how easy it is to find it—all you have to do is type in a search word and you’re into really terrible pornography. I didn’t want my kids to come across anything like that, even by mistake.”
The explosion of Internet technology has created a catch-22 for parents: if they give the green light to Internet access, opening the door to a universe of fascinating and useful information, they also risk exposing their kids to hard-core pornography and other information many would deem inappropriate. A far cry from the boyhood staple of a dog-eared copy of Playboy wedged under a mattress, pornography on the Internet can include pictures and text about everything from bizarre fetishes to prostitution to pedophilia—material that would shock many adults, let alone their children. And the nastiness does not stop there: violence, hate literature, cult information and drug lore have also seeped onto the Net and its cyberspace sibling, the World Wide Web.
While some computer users
dismiss the concern over smut on the Internet as overblown, on-line censorship is now a hotly debated topic, prompting several attempts at regulation. Last week, President Bill Clinton signed into law a sweeping telecommunications bill that imposes fines of up to $340,000 and as long as five years in prison on anyone who transmits “indecent material” over a public computer network to which minors have access. (In Canada, the Criminal Code makes it an offence to distribute, by any means, material whose dominant characteristic “is the undue exploitation of sex.”) And at the end of December, CompuServe, a major commercial on-line service, blocked worldwide access to 200 electronic newsgroups after it was accused of breaking German law by allowing access to illegal material, including child pornography.
Those restrictions have prompted an angry backlash. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the U.S. government, charging that the crackdown on indecent material violates free speech. In addition, many individual Internet users resent govern-
ment intervention, and believe the responsibility for the safety and well-being of children belongs in the hands of parents, not politicians. Their view is that individual computer users should decide what is appropriate for their children.
How software can help parents shield their kids from Internet porn
Ruth Warren agrees. Her kids now surf the Net with CYBERsitter, one of several software products that are designed to help parents monitor and control their children’s Internet use. Designed by Solid Oak Software of Santa Barbara, Calif., CYBERsitter is a Windows program featuring a “filter file” that lists Web pages, newsgroups and other Net sites devoted to sex, drugs, racism, violence or other illegal, adult-oriented or potentially offensive activities. Users can add to the file, but cannot delete any of the items that are already on the list. When loaded and activated, the program prevents access to any of the forbidden sites, and it can alert parents to attempted access of those sites. CYBERsitter will also disallow certain words or phrases for use on the Internet or in e-mail, including the child’s name, address, or phone number.
“CYBERsitter has really given us peace of mind,” says Warren, whose three children, between the ages of 12 and 15, are on the Internet daily. Warren and her husband, Carl, received CYBERsitter as part of a package with their subscription to Worldwide Online, a local Internet access provider. “We had been looking around at similar products in the stores, and had decided we wouldn’t go on the Internet until we had one of these programs in place. Without it we would have been worried all the time.”
CYBERsitter is one of several parental control software programs on the market, all of which seek to limit access to children by block-
ing specified sites or words. Another popular product, SurfWatch, available from SurfWatch Software in Los Altos, Calif., also blocks Web, chat and similar sites, but its “filter set” of more than 2,000 sites includes only those of a sexual nature, and does not allow parents to add or delete files as they wish. Since new Web sites appear daily, many parents may want to update the list of censored sites regularly. SurfWatch updates its group of sites monthly, and charges $8 a month to receive those updates (by contrast, CYBERsitter’s updates can be downloaded from the company’s Web site for free). An upgraded version of SurfWatch, due out in six weeks, will allow parents to add and delete words and
sites, as well as to select sites from other categories, such as violence, alcohol and drugs, and gambling. SurfWatch is available for both Macintosh and Windows.
Another option is Cyber Patrol, also for both Windows and Macintosh, from Microsystems Software Inc. of Framingham, Mass. Cyber Patrol comes loaded with a “CyberNOT Block List,” which prohibits access to 6,000 different sites, divided into categories such as
Sexual Acts/Text, Racist/Ethnic, and Violence/Profanity. Parents can add sites or unlock sites that are on the CyberNOT list. Cyber Patrol also allows parents to restrict access to certain times of day, limit total time spent on-line per day or week, and control access to online providers and local applications such as games and personal financial managers. For $3.50 a month, Cyber Patrol will automatically dial up the company and update the CyberNOT list every seven days. The current version of Cyber Patrol does not log on-line activity, but the next version will. It will also require a different password for each child, allowing adults to customize access to categories and services.
Two other popular products are Canadian. The Internet Filter, a Windows program from Vancouverbased Turner Investigations, Research and Communications, comes with a fully configurable dictionary of sites and vocabulary, and logs all inappropriate access attempts by the child. However, the company does not provide updates to the dictionary. What Internet Filter does offer is the option of alerting parents—by sending an e-mail message to another computer, say, at the office—when a child has attempted to access forbidden material. The next version will log all e-mail transactions and allow users to post warnings about new adult-oriented sites on the company’s home page, where they can be retrieved by other users.
Finally, Net Nanny, by Trove Investment Corp. of Vancouver, is another Windows program that comes with a dictionary of forbidden Web sites, newsWarren, son Mark, groups and chat rooms, to 15; porn on the Net which parents can add or (left): forbidden delete. Updates can be
downloaded free of charge from the Net Nanny home page. As well as logging activity, it can also prevent a name, address, phone number or credit card number from being given out over the Internet. And it has a two-way, real-time screening tool, which filters all conversations coming in and going out of the computer. For example, if someone in a chat room asks the child where he lives, the computer automatically shuts down.
However, Net Nanny does not stop at Internet activity. It will screen phone numbers dialled by the modem, and block access to games and other specified files on the hard drive, as well as the floppy and CD-ROM drives. “Basically, it monitors everything the computer does,” says Gordon Ross, president and chief executive officer of Trove. “We focus on the heart of the computer, not just the Internet.” The aim, in short, is to put parents’ minds at ease.
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