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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC FOCUS / LAWRENCE J. MAGID

New Technology Makes It Easier to Control What Kids Can See Online

May 20, 1996|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

The Internet is a wonderful place for children. There are tens of thousands of sites that are educational, fun and even downright wholesome. Yet, just like the rest of the world, cyberspace has places that are not for kids.

I have no problem with that. If adults want to post or view material that is sexually explicit, violent or for any other reason inappropriate for children, that's their business. The government's attempt to ban "indecent" communications in cyberspace in the name of protecting children is terribly ill-conceived, and we can only hope the panel of federal judges now considering its constitutionality will strike it down.

But I also don't have any problem with parents and teachers exercising their responsibility by keeping children and teenagers away from inappropriate areas of cyberspace. There are a number of ways to do this, and the method you use will depend on your own family's or school's values and what you think is necessary for the children under your care.

For some families and classrooms, simple voluntary rules might be adequate. However, if you need a little help, there are ways to block access to cyberporn and other areas.

One way is to use a commercial online service such as America Online, Prodigy, CompuServe or Wow! (CompuServe's new consumer service), which have their own parental control tools. Each of these services has a way to block out areas parents consider inappropriate for children. This works as long as the child stays within the service's own area. But the services also provide access to the Internet, and once kids venture there, all bets are off.

Soon, though, it should become much easier to control what your children see and do on the Net. The major online services, along with Microsoft, Netscape and many other companies, have endorsed a new technology, called Platform for Internet Content Selection. PICS doesn't rate sites for adult content, but rather serves as a means of putting labels on Web sites, which can in turn indicate the type of content they contain.

Once PICS is embedded into browsers and online services, it will be possible for parents to specify the types of sites they don't want their kids to access. Unlike the Motion Picture Assn. of America's rating system for movies, there won't be a single standard. Parents could choose to allow their kids to access sites that contain partial nudity but prohibit sites that depict any type of violence. PICS allows for multiple rating systems.

Organizations that have objections to certain types of content can now create their own rating system, and parents can then install such ratings on PICS-compliant browsers or online services. SafeSurf of Van Nuys (http://www.safesurf.com) and the Recreational Software Advisory Council (http://www.rsac.org/), for example, have developed rating systems that allow people who operate Web sites to rate their sites according to certain criteria.

The PICS technology can even be used to filter the growing number of Web pages that try to sell products to kids. Because of the dynamic nature of the Net, there's no way to rate every site, but parents will have the option of letting their kids access only sites that have been rated.

In the meantime, there are already several Internet blocking programs on the market, including SurfWatch from SurfWatch Software ([800] 458-6600 or http://www.surfwatch.com) and Cyber Patrol from Microsystems Software ([800] 489-2001 or http://www.microsys.com). Both companies rely on teams of experienced Web surfers who go out of their way to find sites that should be off-limits to kids.

The companies also use technology that searches for sites that have words that are generally associated with sexually explicit material. These programs work with the Web as well as newsgroups, chat areas and FTP sites that contain files for downloading. Because these companies proactively search for inappropriate sites and block areas other than Web sites, it is unlikely that PICS will render them obsolete. In fact, future versions of both products will be able to import PICS-compliant rating systems.

SurfWatch doesn't currently allow adults to modify the list of sites, nor does it attempt to block sites that are violent in nature or include material that is hateful or otherwise potentially inappropriate. However, the company later this month will release SurfWatch Manager, which will enable parents to edit the list. The new software, which will be free to SurfWatch users, will also optionally block sites that are violent (including hate crimes) or which advocate illegal drugs or alcohol, tobacco or gambling. These categories will be updated as part of the SurfWatch subscription plan.

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