AT&T; and Tim Robertson, the former head of the Family Channel and the son of evangelist Pat Robertson, are preparing to announce this week the creation of a national, family-oriented Internet service that will serve as a kind of gated community of cyberspace.
The service, temporarily named FamilyClick.com, will automatically screen out Web sites and e-mail that contain pornography, obscenity and overt messages of hate, Robertson said.
The field of family-oriented Internet service providers is now tiny, made up of just a few companies that have mostly aimed their service at the Christian community.
But the entry of Robertson and AT&T; marks a significant step in boosting the idea of filtered Internet service into a significant force in the market.
FamilyClick.com, which is scheduled to debut around the country in September, has raised $10 million in start-up capital, with another $10 million promised from AT&T;, Robertson said.
"We have to draw the line and find a way to protect people," said Robertson, the chief executive of the new company. "This isn't a religious service; this is about family and protecting kids from pornography, hate groups and nuts."
James Lin, a senior analyst of Internet issues for Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles, agreed that there was a market for filtered Internet access, given parents' fear that their children will stumble onto pornography or other inappropriate material while surfing the Web.
"There is certainly an opportunity to capitalize on people's concerns about the Internet," he said.
But he added that filtering is a tricky area that raises its own concerns about censorship and big brother.
Lin said the long-term success of FamilyClick could depend on how extensively it filters the Web and whether customers will end up feeling controlled or protected.
"You have to remember that too much of a good thing is not a good thing," Lin said.
The idea for FamilyClick came to Robertson after International Family Entertainment, the parent company of the Family Channel, was sold in 1997 to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Kids Worldwide. The channel is now known as the Fox Family Channel.
His first thought was to create a portal site that would contain articles and chat areas geared toward families. But he decided that a better opportunity lay in providing the connections that allow people to get on the Internet in the first place.
The wide-open nature of the Internet has raised concerns for many parents and social conservatives because of the proliferation of pornography and Web sites focused on hate and bigotry.
Parents can buy filtering programs that will block certain Web sites, but they must be frequently updated to cover new Web sites that pop up each day.
FamilyClick would block Web sites by using similar filtering software that would reside on the company's central computer, thus relieving users of the burden of installing and updating software on their own.
Robertson said that FamilyClick is developing software that will block not only offensive Web sites but e-mail messages.
FamilyClick will be a national service, offering dial-up numbers around the country through AT&T;'s network. He said the service will cost about $20 for unlimited Internet access.
AT&T; officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Robertson said the service's main targets are the estimated 20 million families in the nation who have computers but have not yet connected to the Internet, and those who are already connected to the Internet but are searching for a service that can provide a safer environment for children.
"With the Family Channel, we wouldn't put up anything we wouldn't watch with our own kids," he said. "This is going to be the same."