George Cole on the latest Internet control programs for worried parents
For many parents, the Internet is a pretty scary place. A succession of high-profile news reports has given the impression that the Net is awash with sex, violence, extremism and racism. Not to mention bomb-making sites that can turn little Johnny or Jenny into an urban terrorist.

Few would deny that there is a lot of unsavoury material on the Net, yet equally, few would dispute the fact that there are thousands of information, entertainment and education sites that are great for children. The question is, how to keep kids away from pornographic or violent sites?

Riding on the wave of parental concern are Internet control programs. The leading Net control software is CyberPatrol, from the US company Microsystems. CyberPatrol is supported by various online companies including AOL, CompuServe and Kids Online (due to arrive in this country in 1998). CyberPatrol, which costs pounds 24.95, can be loaded from a floppy disk, or downloaded from the Net. The latter version gives parents an opportunity to test the software before buying. After about a week, the downloaded software stops operating; but if you like the program, you can call up Microsystems, pay by credit card and receive a special code to stop the software self-destructing.

CyberPatrol uses a team of people, including parents and teachers, to monitor Net sites and compile a list of ones which are deemed unsuitable (called the "CyberNOT" list) and ones thought to be acceptable (the "CyberYES" list). There is also an independent adjudicating committee, which includes church leaders, gay organisation representatives, teachers and parents. The list is updated weekly and can be downloaded from the Net.

Adults can set up their PC to reject the sites on the CyberNOT list. They can also stop children from giving out personal information over the Net (such as addresses, telephone numbers and credit card numbers), control how long the computer can be used online and restrict Internet use to certain hours of the day. It's also possible to customise the program for different members of the family: "There may be sites which you wouldn't want an eight-year-old to see, but which are fine for a 16-year-old," says Mark Trudiger, Microsystems UK technical services manager.

Another Net access package, CYBERsitter (pounds 29) also uses a site-filtering system. Net Nanny (pounds 49) works by allowing parents to block words, phrases or sites. Net Nanny can also be used to control e-mail, and even software on floppy disk or CD-Rom.

Net control software has its supporters - and its critics. The problem with programs that work by controlling sites is that perfectly legitimate ones can be blocked in the process (see "Real ale is too strong for the American moralists", Network, 22 July 1996). The same applies to programs that block words - some breast cancer associations have suffered from this process, as has Scunthorpe, which has had to change its Net name to Sconthorpe (I'll leave you to work out why). Also, some unsavoury sites can have innocent-sounding names; one paedophile site named itself after a well-known Disney character.

Another argument is that Net control software can give parents a false sense of security. Computers are very bad at making moral judgements - and they know nothing about the maturity of your child. Net control software has to be made simple enough for parents to use, and many children are much more computer-literate than adults. The result is that the software could be overridden by a child. But Trudiger says that CyberPatrol uses a double password system, and is designed to prevent children from tampering - for example, by renaming banned sites.

Net control software has its place, but it's only part of the cure. Putting the family computer in a room that's used by everyone can be an effective way of controlling access. So can sitting down with your child and devising a set of rules together for using the Net. Like any big city, the Internet has places we would not want children to visit, and Net access software can help us protect them. But common sense, clear guidance and support are, at the very least, just as important

CyberPatrol: 01344 874111 (

Net Nanny: 01256 70777 (

CYBERsitter: 01202 716726 (