Dear Subscribers:In "A subscriber writes" below, don't miss a mother's experience in dealing with a child's use of Napster-like file-sharing technology to download sexually explicit images. Send in your thoughts on and experiences with this! Here's our lineup for this second week of July:
- A subscriber writes: Sexual images & filtering
- About image-swapping on the Net: Morpheus and other file-sharing services; Image filtering; Solutions for parents
- Web News Briefs: Internet accountability survey; Online-safety tool; Email not private; To stop smut emailed to kids....
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A subscriber writes: Sexual images & filtering
Our thanks to subscriber Candy in Kansas for this email, alerting fellow parents to a new online-parenting and filtering challenge: a Napster-style ("peer-to-peer," or "P2P," file-sharing) service she discovered in use on a computer at her house. Only, these weren't music files.
Please note her (and our) interest in hearing from you about similar experiences you may have had and solutions found. To respond, do email us via email@example.com. Here's her experience:
"I feel I am a fairly informed parent regarding the use of the computer and the Internet. I am very upset to find out that my 15-year-old son has been able to access and download pornographic images from 'Morpheus,' an Internet peer-to-peer site similar to Napster. I thought he was just downloading music until I checked the violation log in my Net Nanny program, and was amazed at all the violations that had accrued under his name.
"None of these pornographic 'sites-photos' showed up in the History file, temporary Internet files, or other files I use to monitor his usage. I asked him where these were coming from and, thankfully, he was honest and admitted they were from Morpheus. I'm also concerned about emails and images coming through while he is IM'ing [instant-messaging].
"Have you heard of this Web site, and how many of your readers are aware of this? I've talked numerous times to him regarding my feelings about being able to access pornography. I realize he is at the age where this is very intriguing to him. He doesn't understand 'what the big deal is.' We've grounded him from the computer in the past, have instituted Net Nanny, and I keep close watch on where he's been. The family computer is set up in an area of our house that is quite accessible to everyone. Is there any way to prevent these images from being accessed? Help!"
About image-swapping on the Net: Here's help
- The scoop on Morpheus (and other file-sharing services)
Morpheus is file-sharing software similar to Napster that anyone who goes to MusicCity.com can download for free in order to search and download files from the hard drives of other MusicCity members (anyone else who's downloaded Morpheus). The difference between Napster and Morpheus is that Napster is all music (MP3, or music, file-sharing); Morpheus goes the next step to include image, video, and document file-sharing as well. [It might be more accurate right now to say Napster was all music, because this week a US federal judge ordered Napster to stay shut down until it can show 100% success in blocking copyrighted works; see CNET and a statement by Napster's CEO, saying the decision threatens all file-sharing over the Net.]
But if you're looking for such software on your family computer, it wouldn't help just to search for Morpheus. There are many programs like it free for the downloading - iMesh, LimeWire, BearShare, BuddyShare, and ToadNode, to name just a few of the popular ones. Our search for "file-sharing" at CNET's Download.com got 69 results, and it left out some of the above!
- The latest on image filtering
"In my opinion, the technology just doesn't exist yet," said Lonnie Parrish, senior software developer for Security Software Systems, Inc., makers of Cyber Sentinel filtering software. He's analyzed and tested the flesh-tone-detection technology and found that its accuracy, "at very best, is 20%." For example, it would filter out sand dunes, family group photos, and baby pictures, he told us, adding: "And there are so many different shades of humans! It's a gimmick, really." Besides the constant human-style "judgment" calls that would be required of the technology, he also pointed out the sheer processing power and time it would take to analyze and accurately detect pornographic images. "To get a computer to actually recognize a shape, you'd need a Cray [supercomputer] working full time on one picture. That's the Holy Grail: to get a computer to be able to actually visually recognize something."
Lonnie's talking about pure image detection and filtering - what would be required to solve Candy's problem (involving images alone shared across the Net, as opposed to images associated with text on Web pages). But there's something else parents should know about: searches for images on Web pages. The most popular search engines - e.g., Google.com, AltaVista.com, Lycos.com - have started offering image search services. They provide filtering to go with them but, according to CNET, for G-rated audiences, all of these search services are still showing "too much skin" - even with the filtering turned on. (The CNET piece is a great overview of what the search sites are doing with this right now and what their challenges are.)
Even so, filtering images on Web pages works better than trying to filter out images moving around the Net all by themselves. The filtering tech the search engines use is standard text-filtering (keyword) technology - for the text associated with images on Web pages - as well as whatever image-detection tech they have managed to build or license. "There are no commercial solutions we're aware of that would fill the need [on the file-sharing side]," Google spokesman David Krane told us. "It's a very difficult technical problem. But we think we do a fairly good job because oftentimes images are closely associated with text on a Web page."
- Possible solutions for parents
Probably the best technological solution to a problem like Candy's - proposed by Chris Robison, a tech expert at RuleSpace (the company behind AOL's filtering services) - is to install a personal "firewall" - software often used by families with fast (DSL or cable modem) connections to the Internet to block or control Net-wide access to their home PCs. The firewall can be configured to block incoming and outgoing access by certain software products. For example, it can be "told" not to allow Morpheus to access the Internet to find or download images. Some of the popular firewalls are Zonelabs.com's (free) ZoneAlarm, Symantec.com's Norton Personal Firewall, or Ositis.com's WinProxy (which works with dialup Internet service).
To see what's already on your hard drive before installing a firewall, there's the approach Candy took - using NetNanny or other filtering software to detect "violations" - or, as Lonnie suggested, search for ".gif" or ".jpg" files on your hard drive and see what those pictures depict.
AOL subscribers can configure Parental Controls to turn off downloads. If downloading is blocked, Parental Controls expert Diana Pentecost tells us, "a child will not be able to download any software anywhere on AOL. There is a separate download control for mail if you want to prevent your child from downloading file attachments in email." But Diana adds that these blocks don't extend beyond AOL's content. "A child would still be able to go to Web sites (that they have access to based on your Parental Controls settings) and download or share files from those locations." However, if Parental Controls are set for "Kids Only" Web sites, MusicCity.com, for example, is probably not one of those. A long way of saying to AOL subscribers that it pays to get to know those Parental Controls!
There simply is no getting around what we all instinctively know, echoed by Lonnie in our conversation: "It's still always going to be a combination of technology and parents that's going to be the solution to the problem," he told us. "Parents can't do it all by themselves, and a piece of software can't do it all either." But informed, communicative parents can do a whole lot more all by themselves than any software ever will.
Do send in your own experiences and solutions!
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Web News Briefs
- Survey: Accountability online
Americans would like to see Internet users themselves having more control over how the Net develops and is governed, according to a Markle Foundation survey. "Toward a framework for Internet Accountability," released this week, was the first major study on the subject. According to Markle, the study found that "the public is extremely enthusiastic about the Internet, particularly as a source of information, but is looking for new forms of public, private, and non-profit governance of the Internet in order to give people more protection and control when they go online." Other key findings include:
- 63% of all Americans, and 83% of those online have a positive view of the Net.
- Yet 45% of all Americans also see the Net as a source of worry.
- 70% say "you have to question most things you read on the Internet."
- 45 say their dominant image of the Net is that of a "library," as opposed to the 17% who see it as a "shopping mall" or "banking and investment office."
- 54% believe it they do not enjoy the same rights and protections online as offline.
- 59% percent say they don't know who they would turn to if they had a problem online. (That reminds us: For answers to the question, "Where can I report online consumer fraud?", see this New York Times piece.)
Here are the Washington Post and the New York Times on the Markle Foundation's survey.
What do you think of a medium that has such impact, that is virtually ungoverned, and whose development has so far had very little input from its users? Do email us.
[Students of Internet governance may find these two resources useful: 1) this week's two-part editorial "Why ICANN's domain dispute rules are flawed" at UK-based TheRegister.com and 2) the Web site of "The Domain Name Handbook" (more up-to-date than the book, published in '98), DomainHandbook.com, with both the latest news about and the history of the "policies, protocols, procedures, principles, controversies, and initiatives associated with the domain name system."]
- Online-safety tool: ActivatorDesk finally released
It's actually not just online-safety software. ActivatorDesk - just released in public beta - is a whole new PC desktop (an alternative to the Windows one) and "personal Internet portal" that replaces Netscape or Explorer. The latter is the online-safety part because the browser software allows for multiple accounts so that parents can configure it for Net access appropriate for individual kids. "The highest security setting blocks the entire Internet except for a white list of about 16,000 safe, pre-screened Web sites," reports Wired News. Parents can add to or delete from the database. The software's designers are also proud of its computer-security features. As for the cost: It's sort of free: "The program will urge users to register for $25," Wired reports, adding: "The 'nagware' ... works like this: After 30 days the browser will automatically send you to a Web page after every 10 URL requests. After 90 days, it's every three requests." We first wrote about this product way back in April 2000, where you'll find more details.
- Email is not private
People can and have lost jobs, friends, credibility, and lawsuits thinking nobody but the recipient(s) would read their emails. Well, we'd have to check further into the lawsuits one, but we all know email has been used as evidence in courts of law - including an email by Bill Gates in the US Justice Department's antitrust suit against Microsoft. The New York Times interviews several experts about why people tend to be so trusting of this two-edged sword and makes this arresting observation: "Human ingenuity has devised a technology that makes each of us potentially the biggest enemy of our own privacy.... Thanks to the global reach of the Internet and the ubiquity of e-mail, human beings now have awesome power to inform upon themselves, and perhaps the psychological inability to do anything about it." Parents, this might be a good one to share with the email and instant-messaging fans at your house. Contrary to what they might suggest, we parents are the only potential invaders of their privacy!
- Legislation: Smut emailed to kids
It would probably only work with companies based in the US, but a bill to stop online sex site operators from sending explicit email ads to kids was introduced this week. According to WashingtonPost.com, the legislation, introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), "would require email advertisements for sex sites and explicit content to contain an 'electronic tag' that parents could use to block their reception by children" It would also allow parents to sue violators - who would be committing a federal crime under the bill - for civil damages of up to $10,000 per email. In "A Namby-Pamby, Spammy Bill," Wired News reports, "Critics - and there are many - say it either does too much or too little."
- Online privacy inertia ended?
This week saw an end to the US Congress's months of public inactivity in the online privacy area. The Senate Commerce Committee held its first Internet privacy hearing," reports TheStandard.com. "Privacy has languished on the legislative priority list behind President Bush's tax cut and budget proposals, education and health care," says The Standard, suggesting that "episodes such as Eli Lilly's recent accidental divulgence of the email addresses of hundreds of Prozac users" may be helping. But, it adds, "it's unlikely that Congress will go further this year than passing a law mandating relatively weak privacy protections." Here's WashingtonPost.com's version of the story.
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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