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Censoring kids' surfing

Censoring kids’ surfing — A look at Cyberpatrol, Surfwatch, and other ways to monitor your children’s net use

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As far as parents are concerned, the World Wide Web is still the Wild West. Plenty of sites are settled and civilized, but you never know when your kid is going to wander into the equivalent of Dodge City and goggle at the hookers hanging out on Main Street. The recently passed Communications Decency Act — a vague federal law that could hypothetically land you in jail for sending a blue E-mail — is, as I write, being contested in Philadelphia federal court (you can find details at http://www.cdt.org). With any luck, free speech will win out and the law will be overturned as unconstitutional, but that just puts parental fears back to square one. The questions remain: Where can your children go on the Web, and how do you keep them from checking out http://www.penthousemag.com?

The best place to start is with directories that link to other sites, such as Yahoo!’s new child-friendly Yahooligans! (http://www.yahooligans.com). But when it comes to specific kids’ websites, it’s useful to distinguish between the corporate/promotional — such as disney.com and its soon-to-be-launched sister site, family.com — and the truly creative. One of the finest of the latter is the acclaimed Kids’ Space (http://plaza.interport.net/kids_space/), a joint Japanese/U.S. nonprofit venture that allows children around the world to collaborate on online picture books or send in sound clips of their musical prowess (I especially liked hearing the 2-year-old kid in Hong Kong sing ”Michael Row the Boat Ashore”). Kids’ Space’s engagingly childlike graphic design is the icing on the cupcake.

Parents should be aware, though, that there are wolves out there in sheep’s clothing. Kidscom (http://www.kidscom.com) calls itself a ”Communications Playground for Kids” and offers up a mix of entertainment similar to Kids’ Space’s: collaborative stories, art, online chat. But the ”KidsKash” questionnaire that children are asked to fill out smells like a covert ploy to amass demographic information; the fact that kids can win prizes from the ”Loot Locker” for answering just adds to the bait-and-switch sleaziness. Poke around a bit, and you’ll find that KidsCom has been created by SpectraCom, a Milwaukee-based market-research company long on Web skills and short on scruples.

Of course, you can’t hover over your children forever — and since they can end up at Bianca’s Smut Shack with one errant click of the mouse, what are you supposed to do? One answer is the new wave of parental filtering software. These products, available either at computer stores or for downloading from the manufacturers’ websites, work on the principle that if you lock Dad’s dirty magazines in the closet, little Johnny can’t get at them. Some come only in PC flavors; since ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY is a Mac shop, I could test out only Surfwatch and Cyberpatrol.

The two work similarly: Once you install the software, it blocks your Web browser (or chat software, or news reader) from accessing any sites deemed naughty by the company’s panel of experts. (Since the Web is in constant flux, you can subscribe to regular updates.) Although SurfWatch is by far the best-known of the smut blockers, I found Cyber Patrol to be more useful and effective. For one thing, it can be customized (you may add to or override the ”CyberNOT list” of banned sites — even if, unfortunately, you can’t look at the list itself). You can also lock out Internet access entirely in half-hour increments or track your family’s online usage via weekly graphs — pretty scary, but hey, if you want to run your home like a police state, that’s your business.

SurfWatch, on the other hand, can’t be modified as yet, so you have to rely on the company’s judgment — which means that even such mildly hubba-hubba sites as the cybersoap The Spot aren’t accessible. Much worse, I tried installing SurfWatch on two different Macs, and both times it froze my browser, then crashed the machine. That’s a pretty effective way to keep your kids out of Dodge, admittedly, but I doubt it’s the intended one.