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January 7, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

Happy New Year! Lots of kid-tech news this first week of '05:

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Family tech at the turn of the year

"We're swimming in doodads and options - text messaging and search engines, Blackberries and blogs, Wi-fi, cell phones that try to do all of the above, and the promise that we haven't seen anything yet," the Seattle Times reports. Yet, this flood of "convenience" makes a lot of us feel uneasy - our children less so, however.

Is this low-grade concern-in-the-background just a grown-up thing - part of not having childhoods with one foot in cyberspace, playing with all the technologies that turn it into a social scene, insta-library, and entertainment service? It's hard to say - there hasn't been a lot of research on this question.

Fortunately, someone uniquely qualified - Prof. David Levy at the University of Washington, who did his PhD work at Stanford in computer science and artificial intelligence - is looking into this question of how technology affects our quality of life. But he's not qualified so much because of his tech background as his inter-disciplinary approach: He recently held a conference called "Information, Silence and Sanctuary" that "pulled together an unlikely roster that included not only technologists and sociologists but a storyteller and a cardiologist, a poet, an economist, a monk and a CEO" (it was supported by the MacArthur and National Science Foundations). Next on his list: building the Center for Information and the Quality of Life in "the perfect place for such an ambitious plan," Seattle, "which is part technology, part caffeine, part rolled-up-sleeves simplicity," according to the Seattle Times.

The bottom line: "In Levy's view, technology is not the culprit. The problem is the imbalance we've allowed it to perpetuate." It's how we use technology - or let it use us. Not the technology itself, but the sheer amount of information, communication, and entertainment it brings or enables. Is all this replacing thinking time?

That's the question we all face, including our children. They're probably better than us at keeping technology in perspective - letting it simply be a tool, adopted easily as a means to an end. On the other hand, we have more of that healthy built-in skepticism about the latest innovations (and will often wait to adopt them until they've actually become useful, or until their downsides are clear enough to be avoidable). No matter where anyone is, age-wise, critical thinking is needed more than ever in this flood of media the Net delivers.

All this is great fuel for a family discussion on tech & life. Here's a little more fodder from a just-released Stanford study (via the New York Times):

Related reading

The hottest new online developments in 2004, listed and linked to by the Washington Post: for example, Blinkx TV, searching for video clips as well as images, as in Google, MSN, Lycos, etc. (the breaking news is Blinkx's release next week of desktop search for Macs! - see CNET); Amazon's search engine; Google's version of free, Web-based email - Gmail; travel comparison-shopping at; SkypeOut international calling (to actual phones) at under $.02/minute (; and Flickr photo-sharing.

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Web News Briefs

  1. Microsoft's free help with PC pests

    Microsoft is now offering anti-spyware software for free (while it's in beta testing), at least until this summer, CNET reports. Here's the download page. It sounds like a neat product: "The look and feel of the anti-spyware beta is similar to those of products from vendors such as McAfee and Norton, which offer people the ability to launch manual scans for unwanted applications and to program the tool to run automated searches. Microsoft's application is designed to monitor all system and software changes made to a particular computer and launches pop-up announcements to let customers know when the system has detected an attempt to install spyware," according CNET. That's more than other free spyware programs do, such as Ad-Aware and Spybot. Here's Wall Street Journal tech writer Walt Mossberg's year-end "Primer on Fighting Spyware." [From the Music to Our Ears Dept., here are comforting words from Washington Post tech writer Rob Pegoraro in his helpful "Six Steps to Safer Surfing": "It's completely feasible to put a computer on the Internet - even one running Windows, the most attacked, least secure operating system around - and never suffer a single successful attack."]

    Anti-virus help is also available at for free, the Associated Press reports. The software, which Microsoft said could be downloaded from its site yesterday (I haven't been able to find the download page, but will tell you when I do), removes viruses rather than prevents infection, so you'll still need security software like that of McAfee's or Symantec's, at least until Microsoft starts selling software that competes with these (probably second half of '05, according to the AP). The free virus-removal software will be automatically updated monthly, Microsoft says. Here's ZDNET's review of other virus-prevention products.

  2. Young and 'always online'

    The Associated Press recently published a series that's not-to-be-missed for anyone interested in the Net's impact on today's youth. "The Internet has shaped the way they work, relax, and even date," according to the AP. "It's created a different notion of community for them and new avenues for expression that are, at best, liberating and fun - but that also can become a forum for pettiness and, occasionally, criminal exploitation." That's from Part 1, "Always online: Growing up on the Net," at Portland, Oregon's KATU TV. The series ran in news sites based all over the US (we even saw Part 1 in a South African site). KATU also picked up the parts about the instant-messaging phenomenon and online gaming (for more insights, see the sidebar, "Excerpts from Chip's Online Gaming Diary," at the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle also had Parts 4 and 5: "Truth can be elusive online" and "Unplugging can be good for you."

  3. Kids & video-game violence

    It isn't just the Internet that pits child protection against civil liberties (for an example, see "Still undecided on COPA"). Now, with a recent proposal by Illinois's governor, it's video games too. Gov. Rod Blagojevich's proposed law, "which would make selling violent or sexual games to anyone under 18 a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison or a $5,000 fine, is just the latest maneuver in an ongoing battle among kids, parents, the game industry, civil libertarians, and politicians eager for parents' support," the Christian Science Monitor reports. The Monitor cites experts' view that the law wouldn't meet First Amendment requirements, but it raises "pressing issues" and an important debate about who's responsible for what games children buy or receive and about the current game rating system, which is much like the US's film ratings (see the Entertainment Software Rating Board). "Like the movie guidelines, it's self-regulated. A store can card teenagers, and [as with some theaters showing R- and X-rated films] many refuse to sell M-rated [for "Mature" player] games to anyone under 17, but no law requires them to abide by the rule - and critics cite lax enforcement," according to the Monitor. It points to similar efforts to regulate video-game sales in Indianapolis, St. Louis County, and Washington State, which "have been struck down by courts as recently as July." The article does a great job of laying out a range of views and issues on this subject.

    For more on games and ratings, see also "Check out the game ratings!", "10 worst video games," and "Kid-tested, parent-approved video games."

  4. Emails: Something for nothing?

    Very unlikely. Tell your kids to be skeptical about messages promising free iPods, software, or laptops. If the programs are for real, at best, the New York Times reports, they're "riddled with problems" or hurdles. "Participants may have to spend a lot to qualify or may not get the reward if they fail to follow what can be complicated rules. Ultimately, they may end up with nothing more than a big increase in spam as their e-mail address and other information is passed along or sold." The messages are usually from marketing companies that get around $40-60 for each person who signs up. An example is a reportedly legitimate program called, providing hurdles such as required participation in a free, 6-week trial of some service such as AOL and getting 5 friends to do the same. You can read about people's experiences with these promotional programs at complaint sites like The FBI told the Times it had not as yet received reports of fraud involving these programs but urged people to look them over carefully.

  5. India: Child porn by teens

    Buried in a business story about the apparently unfair arrest of the executive in charge of India's version of eBay is the part of interest to parents of online kids. According to the Wall Street Journal, the arrest was over a pornographic video of two teenagers being sold for a short time on (which reportedly took the listing down as soon as it was alerted), an eBay subsidiary. Another teenager did the filming of what is probably the illegal kind of pornography (that involving minors), and an engineering student tried to sell the video on the auction site. The story is a reminder of how easy it is to film child pornography on digital video, upload it, and distribute it, whether for free via file-sharing networks, email, or instant-messaging or actually to try to sell it. It has certainly happened in the US too - see "Self-published child porn" in my 8/27 issue.

  6. Mobile carriers balk at porn

    It was looking like cell phones were going to have a dark, seamy side just like the Internet. But maybe not. Though the phones are basically little connected computers (with email, photos, audio, etc.), "the operators of phone networks are resisting new services that proved very popular on the old personal computer: pornography and violent video games," the New York Times reports. Cingular, for example, has announced that such content was "not compatible" with its brand. This is quite a development from a children's advocacy perspective, especially given the revenue phone companies stand to lose. But parents shouldn't hold their breath. As usual, there are censorship and free-speech issues involved. For example, the old fixed phone-line networks were carefully kept "open": "Historically, telephone carriers have not been allowed to censor what people say over the telephone or what phone numbers they call," the Times reports, adding that the FCC has said that cell-phone operators can't censor what consumers visit on the Net. The problem, in working this issue out, is that cell phones are much more like the Internet than regular talk-only phones, bringing with them all the same tension between free speech and child protection because they provide content (pictures, text, etc.) as well as a communications channel. So it'll be interesting to see if Cingular can fend off civil-liberties advocates and keep smut off its network; if not, maybe it should consider providing phone parental controls (see my first look at this last April).

  7. Teen 'antics'-cum-child porn

    The number of reported incidents is growing. In the latest example, a boyfriend and girlfriend, both 16, were having "a bit of teenage fun," using a Webcam to record themselves "engaging in sexual acts," reports the Toronto Globe & Mail. The fun was over when they had a falling out and the boyfriend decided to email the video to his friends. The video of the girl "is on the Web for eternity," as a Hamilton, Ontario, detective on the case put it. And the boy "faces charges of possession and distribution of child pornography for filming what happens between thousands of teenagers each day," according to the Globe & Mail. The law in both Canada and the US (and probably everywhere) has yet to catch up with this phenomenon of self-published child porn. In Canada, "while teenagers older than 14 are legally allowed to have consensual sex, it is illegal under child-pornography laws to distribute material showing teens under 18 engaged in sexual acts," the Globe & Mail reports. The latter is a federal crime in the US as well. But not many cases of children distributing child porn involving themselves and peers have been through the courts to provide precedents. For perspective from the US's National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, see "Kids' self-victimization online" in my newsletter and an earlier piece, "Self-published child porn."

  8. 'Always online' families

    Now, more American families have high-speed Internet connections than dial-up ones, reports Reuters, citing Nielsen/NetRatings research. "More than half of all US residential Internet users [63 million] reached the Web via fast broadband connections in July, outpacing use of slower, dial-up connections for the first time [61 million]." What that means in terms of how they use the Net, says the Associated Press, is a lot more "infosnacking." AOL told the AP that broadband users go to the Net for "quick snippets" of whatever - a quick email, a quick look-up of an opinion piece a friend recommended, a quick check of a basketball games' score, a dip into friends' current IM conversation, etc. Then there's the growing phenomenon of all-family access. The AP points to the five-member Suhre family in Maryland. "Most evenings, the whole family is online at once: [Mark] Suhre wrapping up work as a computer network engineer; his wife, Terri, preparing school lessons or ordering from an e-tailer; his teenage sons Gary, Josh and Brandon playing online video games, instant messaging with friends, maybe even researching homework. The Suhres' lives, online and off, have been transformed by their broadband connection." Has yours? Email me your own families' experiences - positive or negative - with having high-speed Net access.

  9. Gamer buys virtual land

    Now, here's a quite amazing sign of real value being attached to alternate-reality things - in this case, land. "A 22-year-old [Australian] gamer has spent $26,500 on an island that exists only in a computer role-playing game," the BBC reports. The island's in a role-playing online game called Project Entropia; it's called a "massively multiplayer game" because thousands of people play it worldwide. "Entropia allows gamers to buy and sell virtual items using real cash, while fans of other titles often use auction site eBay to sell their virtual wares," according to the BBC. "Earlier this year economists calculated that these massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) have a gross economic impact equivalent to the GDP of the African nation of Namibia."

    There's been a ton of gaming news of late, BTW: Here's a fascinating profile in the New York Times of electronic toymaker Jeri Ellsworth of Yamhill, Ore. Besides a lot of fun, "her efforts in reverse-engineering old computers and giving them new life inside modern custom chips has already earned her a cult following among small groups of 'retro' personal computer enthusiasts," among other things besides personal wealth (as yet), the Times adds. In Australia, "the rise of broadband Internet at home means more folks are having a crack at online gaming - but the learning curve can be steep." So Aussie ISP Netspace "has come up with Gameschool, a free service designed to attract more people to online gaming," Australian IT reports. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an at-a-glance gaming guide, adding that many of the title are simply not geared for kids. And the New York Times describes the latest gamer gotta-have-it gadget: the Nintendo DS with two display screens, two microprocessors "to handle the color game graphics and the machine's many other functions," and slots for two kinds of game cartridges.

  10. UK: Teen worm writer sentenced

    A British teenager who is believed to be part of an international Internet gang has been given a six-month suspended sentence for his role in writing and distributing a worm. ZDNET UK cites one PC security experts as suggesting the 16-year-old "escaped lightly because of his age." The Randex worm that he helped write turned computers it infected into "zombies" that its writers - or spammers to whom they sold a whole network of zombie computers - could control for distribution of spam or for denial-of service attacks on large Web sites. The boy was sentenced at South Cheshire juvenile court, ZDNET UK reports. For more on the zombie phenomenon, see "What if our PC's a zombie?!".

  11. Online dangers likely to grow in '05

    It's the sad reality, according to the Washington Post, really referring to PC security: spam, worms, viruses, phishing, and ID theft. Despite the arrest of conviction of 11 virus writers and "rounding up hundreds of people accused of computer crimes from credit card fraud to outright identity theft ... most fraudsters, hackers, and spammers managed to stay one step ahead of the law," the Post adds. PC security experts cite phishing as one of the worst. To zoom in on that nasty from a family-tech perspective, see my feature last month, "To foil phishers."

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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