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Content Still Leaks Through Filter Programs

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Internet safety filters since I tried the first such program--SurfWatch--back in 1995. They certainly empower parents to take control over what their kids can see and do on the Net as an antidote to government censorship, but I also hate the idea of parents having to rely on technology to control their kids’ behavior.

Basically, there are two ways to filter your kids’ Internet access. You can purchase a software filtering product for your PC, or you can subscribe to an Internet service provider that filters the material before it gets to you. The advantage to having your own filtering software is that you have more control over what is and isn’t filtered, and you can turn them off when it’s time for an adult to access the Net. The so-called family friendly ISPs make it simple--they handle all the configurations and updates, but also take away much of your control.

For now, let’s look at filtering programs.

At home, I’ve thought about using software programs such as SurfWatch ($49.95), NetNanny ($26.95), CyberPatrol ($29.95) or CyberSitter ($39.95) to prevent my kids from straying into the dark corners of cyberspace. But so far, my wife and I have relied on the same parenting techniques we’ve used since the kids were babies. It’s far from perfect, but talking with our kids, checking in with them periodically and sharing the knowledge we’ve picked up over the years seems to be doing the trick.

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As far as I know, neither Katherine (age 15) nor William (13) spends time looking at porno sites, but Will does have a tendency to spend too much time on the Internet instead of doing his homework and practicing his trumpet. Some of the Internet filtering programs, including CyberPatrol, could be configured to limit his time online. But we tend to use another method--walking into the computer room, checking up on what he’s doing and demanding that he get offline when he’s been on too long.

But just because my family doesn’t use filtering programs doesn’t mean that they’re not useful tools.

Recently, I’ve tested a number of the leading filtering programs, and while there is a danger of overly broad blocking, I’ve found that most of the major ones are pretty good. This list includes NetNanny, SurfWatch and CyberPatrol. These software titles are capable, though not perfect, at blocking porn sites, hate sites and others that meet their blocking criteria, and reasonably good at providing access to safe sites that ought to be available.

But there are exceptions. CyberSitter, from Solid Oak Software, wouldn’t let me search for sex education sites on Yahoo, nor would it give me access to Sexrespect.com, a site that advocates abstinence until marriage. It also blocked Planetout.com, a highly regarded Web site with educational, cultural and financial advice for gays and lesbians. I went out of my way to see if I could access porn while CyberSitter was running, and sure enough, I was able to find some. When I visited Deja.com, a Web site that gives you access to newsgroups, the software wouldn’t let me search for sex or the usual array of “four-letter words,” but when I entered innocuous words (like “Mary” and “horse”) I gained access to some sexually explicit stories that take the relationship between people and animals to dimensions that I would prefer to avoid reading about.

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I liked NetNanny because it was easy to install, relatively easy to configure, and unlike most filtering programs, it tells the user the names of the sites it blocks. That gives you a clearer sense of the type of filtering the product does and makes it easy to remove a site from the “block” list. As with other filtering programs, you can also add sites.

And like the other programs, NetNanny wasn’t perfect. I entered a four-letter word in a search engine, and although the program put up a screen telling me I had used an “unacceptable” word, it nevertheless displayed some sex sites, including one with pictures of naked women in all their glory.

CyberPatrol is a pretty good program, but it too is far from perfect. When I typed in a sex-charged word, I got listings for hundreds of sites, and most wouldn’t come up when I clicked on them. But I was able to visit the “Teen Scene Underground Super Sex-Super Mall,” which isn’t what I’d call a wholesome Web spot for kids. When I searched for “safe sex,” I was able to get to most sex education sites, but I was blocked when I tried to visit the Coalition for Positive Sexuality, an educational site that provides safe-sex advice.

To its credit, CyberPatrol is easy to use and includes some extra features, such as the ability to block access to software on your PC (perhaps games you don’t want kids to play or your family’s personal finance program). CyberPatrol’s publisher, Microsystems Software Inc., last week filed a lawsuit against two computer programmers who published on the Internet a way to help kids circumvent the software and reveal the names of the nearly 100,000 sites that the software attempts to block.

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All the companies allow you to download a free trial version of their software, but never install more than one filtering program on a PC at a time, because they can interfere with each other. And be very careful about following the publisher’s instructions for installing and uninstalling the programs.

One problem is that filtering programs such as these have a tendency to embed themselves deep into innards of a PC’s operating system--so deep that regular “uninstall” programs don’t always work. I found that out when I couldn’t remove NetNanny from my PC without help from the company’s tech support department. It turned out that I had accidentally installed it twice on my machine, which disabled the uninstall function.

Several of these programs allow you to block specific words or phrases that your child might type in a chat session. And you might consider blocking their ability to type in their full name, phone number, address or other personally identifiable information. Visiting an inappropriate site might make a child feel uncomfortable, but revealing personal information could jeopardize his or her safety.

Parents might want to try a couple of search engines on this topic. The Tools for Families option at GetNetWise (https://www.getnetwise.org) includes an excellent search engine for all sorts of filtering software and services. You’ll also find an extensive listing of filtering products and services at my site, https://www.safekids.com/filters.htm.

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Whether you use a filtering program, be sure to talk with your kids about safety on the Internet. Remind them to never give out any personal information or arrange a face-to-face visit with anyone they encounter online. Filtering technology has its place, but it’s no substitute for old-fashioned parenting.

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Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached by e-mail at larry.magid@latimes.com. His Web site is https://www.larrysworld.com.


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