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The Cutting Edge: Focus on Technology | PC FOCUS

'Family-Friendly' ISPs Do Your Filtering, With Varying Access

May 22, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Recently I wrote about software programs that filter the Internet so your kids can surf the Web without bumping into sites that depict sex, crime, hatred and other things that parents might consider inappropriate.

All the major programs I looked at--SurfWatch, NetNanny, CyberPatrol and CyberSitter--do a good, though not perfect, job of keeping kids away from smut while allowing them to visit the vast majority of sites that are not inappropriate.

Another way to accomplish that is by using an Internet service provider (ISP) that filters the content for you. The advantage is that the service provider is responsible for maintaining and updating the filtering software. The principle is basically the same, but instead of installing and updating filtering software on your computer, the ISP runs the software on its servers, so if someone in your household tries to get to a blocked site, the request is intercepted and the site is never displayed.

There are a number of "family-friendly" Internet service providers that offer various levels of filtered access. Also, America Online, which serves far more families than any other ISP, offers parents the option of putting their kids into the "kids only," "young teens" or "mature teens" areas of the service, each with a different level of restrictions. One thing I like about AOL is that it also offers completely unfiltered access for adults who want the freedom to go to any Web site.

FamilyClick (http://www.familyclick.com) has a somewhat different philosophy. Although it offers five levels of access for different members of the family, none of its subscribers--including adults--has full access to the entire Internet. Even the "full FamilyClick access," designed for adults, "automatically excludes sites and content dealing with crime, hate groups, pornography, illegal drugs, promotion of non-medical drugs, online gambling and violence."

The service costs $21.95 a month, with the first month free and no start-up costs. Their service offers teen access that also blocks personals, illegal-drug promotion, unmonitored chat rooms, and e-mail services other than those provided by FamilyClick. The pre-teen area blocks sites featuring "alluring or revealing attire," along with "advanced" sex education sites that discuss sexually transmitted diseases or information on pregnancy, family planning, sexual assault and the use of birth control.

"Kids access" blocks all the above, plus more general sex education sites, while the "playroom," designed for children younger than 8, is billed as "100% safe" because it blocks access to the entire Internet except for a group of pre-selected sites known to be appropriate for young children.

The company, based in Virginia Beach, Va., is run by Tim Robertson, the former head of the Family Channel cable TV network. Robertson is the son of evangelist and conservative activist Pat Robertson, but the senior Robertson is not affiliated with the company, a spokesman said.

I was a bit skeptical at first, but after spending a few hours testing the service, I came to the conclusion that services such as this are appropriate for some families who feel they need an extra level of protection. The site does not proselytize, preach or promote any particular religion or religious values. Instead, it filters out sites based on specific criteria.

To its credit, the service is somewhat restrained in its filtering. When I logged in as an adult and later as a teen, I was able to get access to sites dealing with such issues as family planning, gay rights, abortion and other subject areas that some people might consider to be controversial.

Adults using FamilyClick can get access to http://www.planetout.com and other gay and other gay education, political and information sites, but access was blocked to sexually explicit gay sites just as it blocked other sex sites.

The service does a good job dealing with subtleties. Search the Web for "Bambi" and you'll get plenty of sites, some of which have nothing to do with Walt Disney's classic children's story. FamilyClick brought up the ones about the little deer, but it didn't let me enter the site about the "Bambi Twins" whose antics, as you might imagine, don't exactly qualify it for a "G" rating.

When I searched for "escort service," I was able to access those offered by universities and police departments to help people walk about safely, but I wasn't able to get into the more explicit areas of the kind of escort services that typically cater to individuals looking for an after-dinner date.

Filtering is an inexact science. Like all of the PC-based filtering programs, FamilyClick is not perfect. It does sometimes block sites that, at least in my opinion, should be made available and it can let inappropriate material slip through.

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