Staying Spotless in a Sea of Slime, Part 7: Tools That Can Help
by Clark L. and Kathryn H. Kidd
Previous columns in this series have focused on things you can do to prevent evil influences from creeping into your home via your modem and computer screen. Most of this emphasis has been on things you can do, such as establishing rules and situating your computer in a public place. As you read these columns, you may have caught yourself thinking “I wish I had an electronic guardian angel that would sit on the monitor and keep all this bad stuff away.” Well, there are some software products that can help you do this, and that will be the topic of this column. But we must warn you in advance that nothing currently available will relieve you of your responsibility of being involved in the online lives of other family members. Some of these products will assist you in that task, but none of them will replace you as the chief guardian.
When selecting a tool, it is important to consider the ages of the people you want to protect. It is usually easy to protect young children, because they do not generally seek out bad material on the Internet. If they view some bad material, it is probably because they came across it by accident. With this is mind, you may be able to use existing tools to provide some measure of protection. Most mailing programs provide address books, so you can set up an address book containing the names of those to whom the child is allowed to send email. Most young children will consider this a convenience, rather than a control. You will need to remind them that they are only allowed to send email to those in their address book, but that new entries can be added if you as a parent add them. Similarly, most web browsers support lists of favorite web sites, allowing you to build a list of bookmarks for the sites that you visit regularly. Maintain a bookmark list for each child, and emphasize that he may only visit those sites in the bookmark list. Once again, young children will look upon this more as a convenience than a restriction. There are a lot of child-friendly sites you can include in these bookmark lists. Some of them even provide safe search engines that allow search requests to find only other safe sites.
The real problem with finding effective protection software is when you’re dealing with older children (or even adults). It’s not only the fact that older children are more aware of what can be done, but they are also more willing to explore and find new things. This is not to say they are necessarily looking for bad things, it’s just that sometimes they stumble upon them. Because older children place more demands on the Internet (particularly as they start to use it as a research tool for school), they need to have more access, and that provides more potential for getting into the electronic equivalent of “bad neighborhoods.” Some of the tools we will describe below may be effective for these older children.
Blocking or filtering software is designed to stop access to web sites that are questionable. There are lists of “bad” sites, and the software will reject any request to access information from those sites. Some allow you customize the list of sites so that you can add or delete your own entries.
The problem with this design is that new objectionable sites appear on a daily basis, so the list of prohibited sites must continually be updated. Some products claim to solve this problem by regularly accessing their own web site to update the access list with new entries.
Some products extend protection even further by disallowing access to domain names that contain vulgar or sexual words. They may also refuse to display web pages from a site if those pages contain some of the same words.
The problem with blocking software is that it is often either too good or not good enough. We have all read stories of someone with blocking software whose child was still able to access a terrible web site. On the flip side, we have all heard those stories of students who were prevented from accessing a legitimate site because it contained a word on the prohibited list. The software may not distinguish between a chicken breast that is used in a recipe with the corresponding part of human anatomy. Also, all of this software is designed so that someone else has the responsibility of building the list of excluded sites. People have different tastes and values, and you can be sure that you will disagree with some of the sites that are included or excluded.
Most of these products are designed to block users from offensive sites, but make no attempt to control access once you are in an approved site. This may cause problems if you are visiting a legitimate site that has some objectionable material. Most blocking software would let you into the popular eBay auction site, even though you can find things there that conservative parents would not want their children to see (such as revealing photos of popular entertainers).
Blocking software is quite controversial. Some groups are trying to get public libraries to install it, while other groups (including most librarians) are fighting those requests in the courts as a violation of the first amendment. Some blocking software has also been found to be far less effective than advertised, as hackers were able to crack the software and find that many of the banned sites no longer existed. When bad reviews of some products started to appear on the Internet, the makers of those software products promptly added the web sites containing the critical reviews to their prohibited access lists.
If you want to review some of the current software products that support blocking, visit the Yahoo site (www.yahoo.com) and search for “Blocking and Filtering.” This should provide you with links to some software vendors, as well as to articles that discuss blocking in general. Meridian Magazine has recommended ContentWatch (www.contentwatch.com) which adds the unique feature of sending you a monthly log of what sites have been accessed from your computer.
We have been members of America Online for years, and we realize that AOL is the Rodney Dangerfield of Internet providers. Yet users of AOL and other commercial services have some advantages, because the software used by these services has some access controls built into it. So you can have the advantages of blocking and filtering without paying extra.
The features built into America Online are called Parental Controls, and are actually pretty good. There are a number of options that allow you to control such Internet services as email, downloads, chat rooms, and web browsing. As with other blocking software, you must realize that you are using a system based upon another person’s options of what is good versus bad. So although you will probably not agree with all the decisions, at least your children should be protected from the most offensive stuff. If you find web sites that you want to add or delete from the prohibited lists, most of these controls will give you the flexibility of doing that.
Would you rather have a large pipe of dirty water coming into your house that you filter before you drink, or would you rather the water be filtered before it is sent down the pipe? This is the option provided by a filtered access provider, as they do the filtering on their end, making it unnecessary for you to have a filter installed on your computer.
Although this may sound like an ideal situation, it may not work for all users. Because these providers tend to be smaller than the large services, they may not provide the same number of local access numbers, or the required network capacity, or the expected customer support. Also, you will have the usual problem of someone else making the decisions about what is good and bad for your family. This may even be more of a problem with a filtered provider, because it may not be as easy to override their choices.
Two filtered providers catering directly to LDS families include the Millennial Star Network (www.mstar.net) and LDS.NET (www.lds.net). There are many other filtered providers that, while not LDS affiliated, do provide family-oriented content. Some of these can be found by visiting Yahoo and searching for “Filtered Access.” Most of these providers will offer you a free trial, so you might want to give them a try if nothing else seems to work for you.
The philosophy behind these products is that you may not be able to keep people out, but you can at least track where they have been. Some of the blocking software also provides auditing features, or there are strictly auditing programs that don’t stop any access but quietly record it. Many times, providing children with the evidence of their inappropriate actions will be embarrassing enough that further problems will not occur.
If you know enough about your web browser, it usually contains built-in tools that allow you to track web sites visited (History List) and images displayed (Cache). But keep in mind that devious users may also know enough to remove the evidences from these sources.
As we said at the beginning, there is no “magic bullet” that will protect family members in all cases. If you have installed such software on your system, we hope you have not taken the attitude that no further supervision is necessary. These tools will assist you in enforcing your established rules, but they will not replace you as the primary protector for those you love.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.