Network: A censor in cyberspace

New software packages are making it easier to ensure your children do not access undesirable sites on the Internet.
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The Independent Culture
It is late on a school night, and you hear the tapping of computer keys from your child's bedroom. Most likely, your Web-savvy youngster is exploring one of the many child-friendly sites on the Internet - rearranging the features of Otis The Aardvark on the children's BBC home page, perhaps - but you still feel a moment's anxiety as you enter the room. What if your child has stumbled on to a site containing hard-core pornography, or, worse, is giving out his or her personal details to an anonymous stranger in an Internet relay chat room?

Increasing numbers of British parents are facing this troubling scenario every time their children go on-line. An estimated 4 million UK households will be connected to the Internet by the year 2000, with Web-based education set to play an integral role in our children's education under the Government's National Grid for Learning initiative. Yet there is a growing credibility gap between the government's "learning Net" and the World Wide Web of vice that is getting an ever higher profile in the tabloid press.

For many parents, the result is worry and confusion. But a child-safe Internet need not be a distant dream. A diverse range of software solutions is available to monitor children in cyberspace, from complex keyword filtering systems that block sites, e-mails and newsgroups containing words such as "sex", to programs and Net connections based on regularly updated lists of banned or approved Internet resources.

The simplest and most desirable solution, from a parent's point of view, is to monitor a child's on-line time personally. Child care organisations such as the charity Childnet International recommend that younger children be supervised by an adult whenever they use the Internet.

"Parents need to be involved with their children to build their confidence with the Internet and establish house rules," insists Nigel Williams, Childnet's director. "Getting involved with your child is the first step - they will probably learn faster than you. But the Internet is a tool to help you pursue shared interests, and you will learn more by working together."

Older children, however, can benefit from exploring cyberspace for themselves, and it is here that filtering software comes into its own. Protecting children on-line is already big business in America - the US market for filtering software was worth more than $14m in 1997 - and market leaders such as Net Nanny and Cyber Patrol are now looking to Britain as their next big market.

The programs allow parents to prime their PC to demand a password, shut down, or even e-mail them at work if a child tries to enter a website or newsgroup that is on a list of prohibited sites. Regularly updated lists of "good" and "bad" sites are available free or for a subscription fee from the company websites. The UK is already the second largest market for on-line sales of the Learning Company's Cyber Patrol, and Net Nanny will soon be distributed by the Dixons chain through its Dixons, Currys and PC World stores.

Unfortunately, the business of protecting children on-line is further complicated by the issue of freedom of speech in cyberspace. There is a growing concern among anti-censorship organisations that proprietary filtering systems are taking editorial decisions over children's on-line viewing out of parents' hands.

"Users should be aware that they are handing over to software companies control of what they should or shouldn't see," says Malcolm Hutty, of the Campaign Against Censorship of the Internet in Britain. "There is a place for this kind of software, particularly when children are unsupervised on the Net, but children should not always be forced to see the Internet through the eyes of cyber-nanny."

The CyberNOT list used by Cyber Patrol includes 4.5 million banned websites, assessed by a committee including teachers and judges, and users pay a subscription fee for regular updates. But the list is encrypted, and parents downloading the list, and a complimentary CyberYES list of approved sites, may be unaware that along with obvious categories such as nudity and sexual content, their children may be prevented from accessing sites dealing with areas such as feminist issues and Aids education.

Cyber Patrol users can deactivate contentious blocking criteria, such as "alcohol or tobacco" or "sex education", according to their own cultural preferences, but Paul Harrington, the business development manager for Internet Solutions International/The Learning Company in the UK, is quick to point out that Cyber Patrol is seeking to correct this American moral bias.

"People are saying that since all the software companies are in the US, there is a cultural bias, but we're making inroads into that. We now have research teams in America, Germany, Japan and the UK, putting 600 hours a week into researching the CyberNOT list."

Net Nanny has made this issue the core of its policy. As well as using keyword filtering, which allows parents to add or remove keywords that may lead their children into danger, its free lists and updates are fully editable by users. "It's not my right to dictate my value sets into your home," says Gordon Ross, Net Nanny's CEO, who has advised the Clinton administration on Net-protection issues. "We want to put control into the hands of the consumer."

Like Cyber Patrol, the software is also able to prevent children giving out sensitive information such as addresses and telephone numbers.

Concerned parents can also entrust their children to British educators. Research Machines, the leading supplier of Internet access to British schools, operates a pre-filtered Internet-connection service called Internet for Learning, which excludes newsgroups and websites considered unsuitable in a school context. Included in the service is subscription to Eduweb, a network of educational resources with a web-publishing service for children.

But many Net users may already be able to ensure their children surf safely. Internet services such as CompuServe and AOL provide gated communities of approved Internet resources, as well as general Net access, with controls that allow parents to restrict children to child-friendly areas of the service.

Further, 75,000 websites have now been voluntarily rated by the Recreational Software Advisory Council on the Internet (RSACi), and carry an electronic label describing their content. Parents can screen these sites for adult content using web browsers such as Netscape and Internet Explorer, although unrated sites will be out of bounds.

It is widely agreed, however, that software solutions cannot replace hands-on supervision. "The computer should be in the family room," says Nigel Williams, of Childnet. "Kids have a natural curiosity, but also need to learn a new set of rules to evaluate information on the Net so they know whether it is accurate or reliable, and how to apply `stranger- danger' skills in chat rooms. Parents also need to participate."

Where can you find a

reliable cybersitter?

Cyber Patrol can be purchased online (htpp://www.cyberpatrol.com) for pounds 24.95, including three months' subscription to the CyberNOT list. Further six-month subscriptions are available for pounds 16. Weekly updates to the CyberNOT list and daily HotNOTs can be downloaded from the Cyber Patrol website.

Net Nanny is currently available by mail order from NetPartners (0171- 493 5133), priced pounds 29 plus VAT, postage and packing. Dixons will soon offer a version at pounds 24.95. List updates are free at http://www.netnanny.com.

The Internet for Learning service is available by subscription from Research Machines (01235 826868) and costs pounds 14.70 per month, including VAT. Home- link, an off-peak service for evenings, weekends and holidays, is also available at pounds 7.50 per month inclusive.

More information on the Eduweb service is available from http://www.eduweb.co.uk.

NCH Action for Children (http://www. nchafc.org.uk) also provides an advisory document for parents on its site.

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