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Friday, September 24, 2004

Check out those game ratings!

Do you have gamers in your family who are already hinting around about a video
game or two on a holiday wish list they'd started compiling last spring? There's help for gamers' parents. Which is good, because - on the advice of Patricia Vance, president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board - we need to check out the ratings on every video game box
- front and back - before buying anything.

"Some parents who may not have played games before are not aware that there are
games made for adults too," Pat told me in a phone interview. Very much for
adults. An online game called Sociolotron includes virtual rape (see my 7/2
). For off-the-shelf video games, the ratings include the "AO" one (for Adults Only) for games that "contain content suitable only for adults" which "may include graphic depictions of sex and/or violence" and "not intended for persons under the age of 18," as explained on the ESRB's Web guide to the rating system
. Even if your child says "everybody
has it," that may be because other parents did check the game's rating and
aren't around when the game's being played. For parents' tips and links to top game-review sites, please click to my main feature this week.

Family P2P policymaking

A software company executive emailed me some concrete comments about the family P2P policy ideas I floated in "Legal music" last week. He wrote:

"For your 'possible P2P policies,' I'd add a third (albeit, I am most certainly NOT impartial): Use a good P2P blocking application and 'override' the restrictions when your child wants to download [legal music], ensuring that you are around to supervise. [He's not impartial because he's developed P2P blocking software, but we agree this is another option parents might consider. Here are the two options I proposed last week.]

"I'd also caution against using Kazaa with solution #1. It is filled with adware and will slow your computer down. Equally concerning, it comes packaged with an application called P2PNetworking.exe. This application opens a port on your computer that is used for file-sharing, even if you are *not* using Kazaa. This open port represents a significant security risk. Finally, the RIAA has been targeting primarily FastTrack users, which is the network Kazaa shares on. So, if junior happens to get a copyright-infringing song, the risks appear greatest if he used Kazaa. I'd probably suggest EDonkey or Shareaza as good alternatives. BitTorrent is also a good suggestion." (Readers' comments are always welcome - email them to me anytime!)

Teen hacker hired

A bit of irony here: 18-year-old Sven Jaschan, arrested for writing the Sasser worm and reportedly behind 70% of the virus infections that circled the globe the first half year of this year, has been offered a job by German computer security firm Securepoint. According to ZDNet UK, the company says it "would like to hire the reformed script kiddy because he had knowledge in the field and deserved a chance to prove himself." Well, who would know better how to fend off future worms or what goes on inside a malicious hacker's head? Here's more from the BBC on Securepoint's decision, including that "Mr. Jaschan has become something of a minor cause celebre in his native Germany, with his own fan club - the Sasser Support Team - claiming that his virus was intended merely as a wake-up call to the world."

Norway to block child porn

Starting next month, Telenor, Norway's government-controlled telecommunications company, will be blocking illegal child porn for its nearly 1 million Internet customers, Agence France-Presse reports. This is a joint project between Telenor and Kripos, a national law-enforcement agency, which is providing the database of child porn sites against which Telenor's filters will check all Web site requests. Telenor says there is no consumer privacy issue because "it would not log nor keep other records of those who attempt to access blocked sites, and that it would only block sites listed by the police." The project sounds similar to the Cleanfeed child-porn-blocking technology BT has announced it will soon be providing its customers in the UK (see my 6/11 issue). In other anti-child-porn news, Swiss police announced this week that more than 900 people have been arrested as the result of an international investigation into subscriptions to child-pornography Web sites. The Associated Press reports that 140 of those people were in the US. "The other arrests were in Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland."

Net search gets better

Jeeves the friendly search butler went on vacation and has come back looking 20 years younger. CNET cleverly called it Jeeves's "extreme makeover," because there's more to Jeeves than the animated character that's gotten spiffed up. Now there's MyJeeves, "a personalized storage locker for Web surfers' search results"; "Smart Search" for more local information (map, movies, weather, plus spell check, conversions - loads of ways to search); and - in the near future - Jeeves's own search toolbar for your desktop. But Jeeves is not alone in improving Web searching. According to CNET, Yahoo and Google are one step ahead of him at least in the area of searching for local info. And Google's had its own desktop toolbar for some time. Then there's Amazon's new Here's what USAToday says you can do with it: "Drag and drop search results into an online virtual bookmark on Amazon's new search engine. Also available: an online 'diary' to make notes about each saved site." The USAToday piece takes a closer look at this whole phenomenon of next-generation, personalized Web search tools.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Phishers getting smarter

The newest technique phishers (online scammers) use to separate us from our money is proper spelling and grammar, the New York Times reports. Indeed, you used to be able to catch these scam emails at their game because they looked like they were written by a kid. Phishers are getting more prolific and more sophisticated, so be sure not to be duped into "securing" your financial information or "updating" your account by clicking on a link to, say, Citibank's Web site and giving the scammer your password or social security number. In fact, the Anti-Phishing Working Group told the Times it has seen "492 different mass-mailings intended to fool Citibank customers." In this case, Citibank is just as much a victim of identity theft as its customers could be. See "Even kids can be phishers" for links to anti-phishing tips.

CA: Tough on file-swappers

Kids are specifically mentioned in California's new law against anonymous file-sharing. The law, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed this week, establishes fines and possible jail time for anonymous file-sharers, CNET reports. "The new law says that any California resident who sends copyrighted works without permission to at least 10 other people must include his or her email address and the title of the work." If they don't, they face fines of up to $2,500 and up to a year in prison. Minors can receive fines of up to $250 for the first two offenses; the third can bring the fine to $1,000 plus a year in county jail.

Marketing 'fun' at school

What most parents don't know, according to one children's advocate, is that "back to school" means back to the world of infotainment for a lot of kids. Schools usually provide an Internet "acceptable use policy" that outlines proper online behavior and safeguards against inappropriate content, but "little is formally being done to shield kids in school or at home from 'immersive advertising' or corporate-sponsored 'advergames' such as the Neopets Web site, which contains loads of embedded advertising messages [in games] and links to merchandise," Reuters reports. Reuters is citing the view of the Center for Digital Democracy, which is urging the US Federal Trade Commission to review marketing technologies used to attract children. Some data in the article: "the average American child is exposed to 40,000 ad messages each year" and "advertisers spend about $15 a year targeting kids through sites like Neopets." Food sites Reuters mentions which are marketing to kids include,, and

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Our kids are multitaskers

As if we didn't know it. "Kids are listening to music while watching television while wirelessly surfing the Net while instant messaging. And then the cell phone will ring," reports the Chicago Tribune. Children think they're getting more accomplished in a shorter time, and parents worry that not one of these multiple tasks is being done well. But what's new in this report is the suggestion that "maybe we are slowly wiring future generations in a new way.... Maybe we're turning ourselves into what our newest cell phones are: portable units capable of communicating in multiple formats." The Trib's not kidding. There's research saying that our children are IM-ing more than they're using email and that instant messaging has gained a major foothold in the workplace, where our kids will eventually be doing a lot of their communicating. So today's multitasking teens just may be getting good training for tomorrow's professional environment. Another way to thinking about all the time our kids are spending with IMs; at least, it's realistic to consider that nothing about technology is either wholly negative or entirely positive. In a sobering endnote, the Trib points to the digital-divide problem: the future for kids who don't have everyday access to this technology right now.

BTW, we'd love to get comments (and policies!) about IM-ing kids at your house - send them to me at

Tunes the IM way

File-sharing isn't the only way the music fans at your house will be swapping tunes. If Yahoo and MSN have their way, instant-messaging will soon be kids' favorite way to share music. "While the popular IM software already lets people listen to online radio, new versions will let people share and interact with one another's digital playlists," CNET reports. Yahoo's plans are still sketchy (though it just acquired the MusicMatch online service), CNET adds, but Microsoft has already announced it would tie its new MSN Music Store into its Messenger service. MSN's testing the packaging of Messenger with its ThreeDegrees software, which allows IM-ers to share their music playlist with other members in a private group. Sounds like it could be a lot like the new stand-alone service Grouper that I mentioned last week in "Legal Online Music." Grouper allows a private group of friends to listen to each other's music, but it's "streamed," not downloaded, thus legal (no copyright-theft issue, so the RIAA can't sue). Meanwhile, a new study found the MP3 player market is "about to explode," CNET also reports, including teenagers who will be spending their allowances (or hard-earned money) downloading music from the likes of iTunes, Napster, and MSN Music Store onto all those MP3 players.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Games for phones: A downside?

Parents, you do know that there's a lot of online chat associated with multiplayer gaming, right? (That is, gaming over the Net.) And, "as millions buy increasingly powerful cell phones, many companies are racing to develop video games to take advantage of the newfound portability," the Associated Press reports. What they mean by "portability" is that gamers can be anywhere. Which means that fellow chatters and players can reach kids anywhere - those who have these news phones with color screens, extra memory, and faster processors. As one expert told the AP, these phones are basically networked computers. Nothing to be alarmed about, just something for parents to think about: that there's a downside as well as an upside to almost any technology. With the new mobile Internet, as opposed to the old fixed Net, kids can be reached by just about anyone, not just in our homes but also when they're anywhere else. And, yes, in this case they'd be fellow gamers, but gamers who are strangers. And strangers who aren't perceived to be so, who already have "something in common" with the young people they're chatting with, because, "Hey, Mom, it's just a game."

Libraries: Cooler than the Net

The question arises ever more frequently: Do students ever step foot in libraries anymore? Yes, say some librarians, and the reason is, many libraries are even better than the Internet, students are beginning to find. And libraries are online too (this is not news to librarians!). According to the North Adams (Mass.) Transcript, a librarian at Williams College says forget the statistic (from the Pew Internet & American Life project) that 73% of college students "used the Internet more than they used the library." They're coming back to libraries because of the deep, rich databases of information they subscribe to which aren't accessible with a mere Internet connection. This anecdote says it all: "A Williams art history major from Schenectady, N.Y., who declined to give her name, said the library has become easier to use than Internet because she can search databases of scholarly journals to locate the full text articles she needs for research projects. And if she gets stuck, she asks a librarian for help." For a short study at Wellesley College on how much help young Net-researchers at that college need, see "Critical thinking: Kids' best research (and online-safety) tool" in my newsletter.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Adware, spyware: Huh?

We hear these terms, but what do they really mean to real families with real kids who, we're told, download this stuff all the time? What they mean for most of us is family PCs operating way below normal speed, sometimes crashing a lot or getting so locked up we have to call in the techies (often our kids!) for help. As the New York Times puts it in a thorough look at the phenomenon from both consumer and adware sender (from sleazy to legitimate) perspectives, these nasty little software programs have turned the Web into a virtual minefield for us all. We can accidentally download it just by going to certain Web sites or downloading adware disguised as a music file on a file-sharing network like BitTorrent or Kazaa. "Some spyware creeps onto a computer's hard drive unannounced, often by piggybacking onto other software programs that people download or by sneaking through backdoor security gaps in Web browsers," according to the Times. The good news is, increasingly, legitimate adware businesses don't want to annoy us, their bread 'n' butter. They're trying to be more up front with us and help us delete what we don't want on our computers. Meanwhile, while they're cleaning up their act, there are countermeasures: free spyware-detection software like Ad-Aware and Spybot-Search & Destroy. You can't really have a secure, healthy family PC these days without it.