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Friday, January 28, 2005

The new ChatDanger: Beyond chat

A lot of kids will tell you they know the basic online-safety rules. What they really want to know is *why to follow them.* That's what young people in the UK and Denmark told Childnet International as it was getting ready to expand and relaunch its one-of-a-kind Web site,

One of the greatest things about kids, Childnet found in ChatDanger's first four years, is that they "want to tell others about what happened to them in order that others might learn from their experiences," said Childnet's Will Gardner, who led ChatDanger's relaunch. And that's what they did, in some of the more than 5,000 emails the site's received since 2000. Young site visitors kindly, thoughtfully told their stories - about how strangers have approached them, and in some cases threatened and exploited them, in emails, instant-messaging, gaming chats, and phone texting - so their peers wouldn't make the same mistakes. That's what young communicators will find in the new, a resource with which - as Will put it - kids can help their parents reach a certain comfort level about the new communications technologies. For more on this, please see this week's issue of my newsletter.

UK teen arrested for e-fraud

A 14-year-old Londoner described by his grandmother as "an angel" was arrested for selling 20,000 pounds ($37,800) worth of "non-existent gear" via his Web site, The Register reports. He started his e-commerce operation in a bedroom at her house. "By the time the police had tracked down the boy his operation was so successful that he had rented an office and even hired staff," according to The Register, which adds that Grandmother told the press, "He is an angel and never been in trouble. I'm going to kill him when I get hold of him."

New search perks

Yahoo, MSN, A9, Jeeves, Google, etc., are just falling all over themselves to give us new ways to search the Web. This week's developments are A9's "yellow pages" and Google's TV search. As USATODAY put it, "the yellow pages are coming to life" and we Web users now get to search for local businesses with pictures. Amazon's "A9 has added 20 million thumbnail pictures of storefronts [in the US's "top 10 markets"] to its new business directory" for when you don't remember the name of that sushi bar, but you remember its amazing cinnabar front door. Hmm - I *think* I'd use this sometimes. [Imagine what it was like to drive around 10 big cities with a digital camera taking photos of all those storefronts (that's what really happened).] Then there's Google's new feature whereby you can "search the content of television programs from the likes of PBS, the NBA, Fox News, and C-SPAN," InfoWorld reports, adding that it will "open up a new world of easy access to research and will ramp up search competition with Yahoo and others." Called "Google Video," it makes available the closed captioning content of a growing number of TV programs which Google's "spiders" began crawling or indexing last month.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone, AOL has improved its search engine with a new look and "better answers faster," it says. Here's SearchEngineWatch on this.

Answers, not Web sites pls

Sometimes we just want answers when we're searching the Web - not a bunch of Web pages. Wall Street Journal tech writer Walt Mossberg took the time to compare various search engines' ability simply to turn up straight answers (Google has its tiny "Definition" link at the top right of many results pages, MSN Search offers direct answers with some results, and Amazon's A9 has a "reference" button that does the same). For more, Walt recommends, a service of Israel-based GuruNet. "Using a variety of reference sources, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, [] generates a thoughtfully organized page of relevant information about your search query without requiring you to click on any further Web links," Walt writes. There is a downside, though, he points out: The service "relies heavily on Wikipedia, which has been criticized because it isn't written or edited by experts." For more on the Wikipedia encyclopedia/community, see this balanced Washington Post piece and this fairly glowing description at USATODAY.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

"The Making of a Molestor'

This New York Times Magazine article made for very tough reading (tougher to imagine how hard it was to research!) last weekend, but it points out some important facts from people who study child sexual exploitation, as well as how little we know about its causes. We know that it's "committed against perhaps 20% of girls and 5-10% of boys under the age of consent in the United States," the Times reports, but that's based on figures culled from many studies whose numbers "range widely" - e.g., "10-40% for girls and 2-15% for boys." As for causes of this behavior in adults, "what parts are played by biology, by an abuser's own childhood, by aspects of isolation in his (for males make up around 90% of offenders) current life - or by the powerful arrival of the Internet into the world of Eros?" The "quick answer" one specialist in sexual disorders gave writer Daniel Bergner was, "We don't know." But some useful questions about the Internet's role are emerging. "Over the past decade, with the surge in Internet use, there has been no spike in the overall number of cases of sexual abuse against children," Bergner writes." However, psychologists are finding that the Net - with its "abundant porn and disembodied chat-room conversation" can be a "disinhibitor," as well as "a catalyst for fantasy and dangerous if the control over behavior is markedly impaired."

Teen sexuality online & off

Katie Couric and her producers at NBC did parents a service in airing NBC's hour-long special on teen sexuality last night - by fueling the public discussion about this vital part of parenting. The subject is directly linked to young people's online activities - what they talk about and how they behave in their instant messaging, blogs, and phone text messages. The special, with a follow-up this morning on "Today," was based on two complementary pieces of research: a landmark national survey (commissioned by NBC and People magazine) of young teens and their parents and a weekend-long "open forum that Couric conducted with 11 girls and nine boys, ages 13 to 16 [and their parents], in Key Biscayne, Fla.," as described by the Associated Press. The show featured insightful comments on teenagers' experience with sex from the teenagers themselves, their parents, pediatrician/author Meg Meeker, and psychologist/author Neil Bernstein. It picked up on recent reports in the media about "hooking up" and "friends with benefits" (casual sex among young people), as well as views and behaviors on abstinence, oral sex, dating, etc. Just a few important points I picked up on were kids themselves saying that the sexualization of society pressures them to grow up faster than they're ready to; the growing problem (Dr. Meeker used the word "epidemic") of sexually transmitted diseases; and teens' lack of understanding of the connection between sexual intimacy and emotional development (also brought out in a New York Times article last summer - see "Friends with benefits"). For the numbers (e.g., 27% of 13-to-16-year-olds "sexually active," but 87% have not had sexual intercourse), here's NBC's report on the survey.

Fake PC security email

Tell all the Net users at your house to delete any email they see with the subject, "MS Windows/Critical Error." It's a fake, and its attachment is a "trojan" program that - if installed - takes over your computer, ZDNET UK reports. Microsoft would undoubtedly have employed a copy editor to fix all the typos in the email. If you ever want to check to see if your family's PCs are up-to-date on Microsoft's security patches, just go to

Also, don't open any attachment that says it's about a delivery confirmation - regardless of what anybody bought online. It could be a version of the old "Bagle" worm that's recirculating, according to ZDNET UK. Normal delivery confirmations usually just appear in the body of an email. Basically, tell your kids not to open *any* attachment in an email or file sent with an instant message unless they confirm beforehand with the person supposedly sending it that it's what their message says it is. Feel free to email me any questions.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Canada's launched!

Now there are two countries where parents can get immediate help, 24/7, when they feel a child is at risk online. With its just-launched national hotline, Canada joins the US's, and the UK has a somewhat similar service in the works. For its first two years just covering Manitoba, the goal of Canada's tipline "has been to collect complaints and incident reports about child sexual exploitation or luring on the Internet and forward the most serious to appropriate law enforcement agencies," Canada's CTV reports. "The pilot project gained an international reputation through word of mouth" (and virtually no marketing budget). Now the service is federally funded. According to the just-launched Web site of the UK-based Virtual Global Taskforce, the Taskforce "is piloting a scheme in the UK to allow individuals to report concerns about suspicious and/or inappropriate behaviour online" for UK residents, but - different from the US's and Canada's, it "should not be used for reporting emergencies or concerns which need an immediate response" (for that, UK parents are advised to "call 999 or contact your local police"). Both of North America's tiplines have companion toll-free phone numbers. The number of the US's CyberTipline is 800.843.5678 and Canada's Cybertip number is 866.658.9022. Here's more on how the CyberTipline works in my Web site.

Kids' blogs = 'pedophile's dream'

A lot of parents have had a hunch about this, but now an expert has voiced it: Lancashire University-based forensic psychologist Rachel O'Connell told Scotland's Parliament that online journals and picture blogs have increased the risk to online kids. "The emergence of moblogs - mobile weblogs - allowed even faster transfer of pictures to the Internet using mobile telephones with cameras," the BBC reports. That's "just a paedophile's dream because you have children uploading pictures, giving out details of their everyday life," Dr. O'Connell told Parliament. We tell our children not to give out personal information online, but we - and they - usually think that's about name, address, and phone number in an email, IM, or chatroom. Kids who blog, O'Connell pointed out, aren't thinking along those lines. Blogs are all about giving out personal information! Very personal, except that smart kids don't include their full name in posts and blog names. Still, pedophiles are experts at putting 2 and 2 together. "The parameters of grooming are now about to alter whereby they don't necessarily have to have contact with the child," O'Connell told the Scottish Parliament. The BBC continues: "She described a scenario where a group of paedophiles could exchange information on a child's movement [because of moblogs], potentially leading to an abduction." For more on this, see "Monitoring bloggers" and "Blogs booming."

Kids' Net safety: Another step

The child-porn hotlines that have developed all over Europe are doing extremely important work, but they're also a first step toward a broader goal: protecting online kids. Not just from abuse by child pornographers but also from contacts and grooming by pedophiles online. With today's launch of the Virtual Global Taskforce's Web site, the goal's a little closer. The site reflects some remarkable cooperative work. Initiated by the UK's National Crime Squad, the VGT is an international partnership between law enforcement agencies and the tech industry in Canada, the UK, Australia, the US, and Interpol (that last is the world's largest international police organization, with 182 member countries). Their goal is to "make the Internet a safer place" by fighting all forms of online abuse of children (also to make the Internet "a more hostile place for pedophiles").

The VGT's site itself aims to 1) be "a one stop shop for all information about child protection online" and 2) to help people report online child abuse. The first is a tall order for any law-enforcement Web site because so much of online-child protection is about day-to-day parenting, but there's some great info in the site, especially the six "Top Tips" on the kids' page. The site also has a ways to go on point #2. This is just one parent's perspective, but I've watched this scene for a long time and have felt that, ever since the US's went live (at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children), that's what every parent in the world should have access to in an emergency. Having a child immediately at risk online happens pretty rarely, but when it does, parents need to know where to go and there needs to be someone at the other end, 24/7. [As of this week, Canadian parents now have the, and the UK is working on something like North America's tiplines.] and are linked to from, but they're several clicks down from the home page, the word "emergency" doesn't appear anywhere, and it's not clear on the first few pages that there will be immediate help unless you call your local police (which by now, if there's an emergency, you probably already did!). It'll be great when a parent in any country can go to something like North America's hotlines and get fast action, even if it's a little advice or a local contact from a calm, expert analyst looking at a database of local law-enforcement people nationwide who know just what to do when a child is at risk online. Here's more on emergency help in my site. And here's the BBC's coverage and the VGT's press release on its new site.

AOL drops file-sharers' hangout

Even though it's one of the oldest parts of the Internet, Usenet is probably one of the parts that our kids know a lot more about than we do. At least the file-sharing ones. Usenet newsgroups (or discussion groups), according to ZDNET, are where people who like to swap free, usually bootlegged, software files (such as games) in particular go to find it. It's also where they can very easily pick up viruses, ZDNET reports, and where people have always been able to find pornography. But there's plenty of perfectly legitimate, well-meaning, sometimes weird commentary and info there too, from alt.antiques to Usenet, however, reportedly has become increasingly seedy, and this week's news about it is that America Online is dropping it. By sometime next month, Usenet will no longer be accessible to its members. "It's unclear why AOL is pulling the plug on Usenet but, frankly, the neighborhood just isn't that desirable to companies that want to seem wholesome and family-friendly," writes ZDNET's Molly Brown. The Register cites an AOL spokesman saying the service was dropped because so few subscribers used it. File-sharers no doubt already have a work-around. Many Internet service providers provide access to Usenet, and "AOL users can read newsgroups over the Web using Google Groups," according to eWeek's article on this, citing a pop-up message from AOL to its subscribers about this development.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Not-so-savvy searchers

Net users are very happy with their search engines and are usually very loyal to a particular one but pretty naive about how it works. That's the basic take-away from a survey about search engine use by the Pew Internet and American Life project. You know all those "sponsored links" sometimes in a box at the top and/or side of your search results, sometimes filling the whole first screen and usually marked as such in very light grey? That companies pay to have them appear there? No? Well, you're not alone. And your kids are even less likely to know that - when doing research for school - using these paid search "results" is like using magazine ads as source material. Pew found that "only 38% of users are aware of the distinction between paid or 'sponsored' results and unpaid results. And only one in six say they can always tell which results are paid or sponsored and which are not." Just another sign of how much we need media literacy education in the Internet age. Check out the answer to "Why teach media literacy to young children?" in the California Museum of Photography's site (part of the University of California, Riverside). The findings were widely covered, e.g., in the BBC, the Detroit Free Press, the San Jose Mercury News, and USATODAY.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Phishers' new hook

They're trying to hook new victims by using smaller banks' names, the Washington Post reports. Instead of Citibank and other big financial institutions, phishers - who "use fake Web sites and e-mail messages in an attempt to trick customers into disclosing valuable personal financial information" - are now going after customers of, e.g., First Federal Capital Bank in Madison, Wisc., and TCF Bank in Wayzata, Minn. They're the kinds of banks whose customers do a lot of online banking, the Post points out. So call your bank before clicking on a link in any email from "your bank." For more information, check out my Family Tech feature on foiling phishers, Dec. 17.