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Friday, March 25, 2005

Parents'-eye-view on blogs

Parents are getting smart about the privacy and, potentially, safety risks to children in blogs - one of kids' Top 5 online activities. Just since the year began, I've gotten a flurry of email from parents and teachers about this. You'll find some highlights in this week's issue of my newsletter: Patrick in Massachusetts on how he feels about his 12-year-old using; Cathy in Illinois on "name-calling" in the blogging of her 12-year-old's peer group; and Michele in Massachusetts on all the evidence in blogs of kids feeling pressure to grow up too fast. Plus, there's an item on "Nudity in teen blogs," with advice from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on what's being prosecuted as a crime under federal child-porn law.

Yahoo's new blog service

Teenagers will probably like it a lot. To be unveiled next week, the new service Yahoo will be providing its some 165 million registered users blends blogging and the "social networking" of sites like, according to Singapore's Teenagers are already virtually doing this (sharing common interests and introducing friends online) at sites like MySpace, Xanga, and LiveJournal, but Yahoo will emphasize the networking part more. There's no real downside beyond what's currently happening in teen blogging. The good news is that Yahoo bloggers will be able to choose between public and private blogging - they will be able to "restrict access to people invited through email."

UK: No. 1 in family 'zombie' PCs

The UK leads the world in number of home PCs that are actually "zombies" (under the control of malicious hackers), the BBC reports. Computer security firm Symantec issued a report saying that "25.2% of the world's remotely controlled PCs are found in Britain." The US is close behind, at 24.6%. Reasons cited? The rise of high-speed, or broadband, connections to the Net and families' ignorance about PC security for broadband connecting. Here's a separate BBC piece on how the zombie PCs are manipulated (for distributing spam, manipulating online advertising services, identity theft, and denial-of-service attacks). For help, see my "What if our PC's a zombie?!" and "The 10 Commandments of PC Security" and "Caught a virus?" at PC World.

Restricted tunes

Ok, parents may ask, just what is the difference between iTunes and KaAaA (the pay-per-tune vs. the file-sharing services)? At sites like iTunes, Napster, etc., USATODAY's Andrew Kantor ably explains, "when you pay for and download a song, it comes with various built-in restrictions. Maybe you can only pay it while you're subscribed to the service. Maybe you're limited to playing it on certain machines. Maybe you can't copy it to other media (say, a CD to play in your car)." Kantor goes on to explain that, if you add those restrictions to the media companies' business model ($15 for a CD with one or two good songs on it), you get a lot of music fans grabbing at the nearest alternative: the P2P services. That the music is free isn't the only reason - it just helps. Kantor argues that if they'd just make the paid services as easy as the P2P services *and* restriction-free, people would flock to them. Well, maybe not teenagers short on cash, but it would help. All the lawsuits seem to have helped a bit too - the latest Pew Internet & American Life figures hint that file-sharers are at least less willing to admit to their P2P activities. We may be seeing the tide turning, but parents need to be in the decisionmaking process too - for everybody's legal protection and to help kids think through the ethical issues, even if you're all copy-leftists. Here are some discussion points: "A tech-literate dad on file-sharing" and "Bigger picture on file-sharing."

Thursday, March 24, 2005

US: File-sharing differently

Americans are sharing digital music as much as ever, but less on the P2P services, according to the latest Pew Internet & American Life study. The percentage of Net users who swap tunes online is holding steady at about 24%. The change is here: "Twenty-one percent of current music downloaders say they still [actively] use P2P systems, compared with 31% in February 2004," while use of paid music services like iTunes and Napster has gone from 17% a year ago to 34% now, the Associated Press reports. But other alternatives are being used, too: About half of music and video downloaders say they're using email and instant messaging to share files (but see below about safe IM-ing), as well as transferring them from friends' iPods and other MP3 players. CNN Money puts it a little more negatively (also mentioning next week's arguments on file-sharing before the US Supreme Court): "7 million Americans - or about 9% of Internet users - are currently making unlicensed copies of music from someone else's iPod or similar MP3 device. About 10 million are getting bootlegged music and movies through email and instant messages." Meanwhile, the Consumer Federation of American released an 80-page report that represents a "full-scale assault" on the media companies' legal strategy, CNET reports. "Record companies and movie studios have tried to make this a debate about privacy and theft," said the Federation's research director, Mark Cooper. "It is not. It is about progress and freedom of expression."

MN tragedy: Whither the Net?

As with Columbine High, the Internet is being looked at as having a possible role in Jeff Weise's tragic shooting spree in a Minnesota high school this week. But it might help parents to consider that the reasons for this tragedy have more to do with people than with technology - people online and offline. A number of posts associated with Jeff, in blogs and discussion boards, indicate the mental state he was in. According to the New York Times today, he "wrote that his mother [before an accident that left her brain-damaged] 'would hit me with anything she could get her hands on,' and 'would tell me I was a mistake, and she would say so many things that its hard to deal with them or think of them without crying." One of his screennames was "verlassen4_20," "which means 'abandoned' in German and refers to Hitler's April 20 birthday," the Associated Press reports. And then there's time's role: Jeff apparently had plenty of it on his hands to create and post a violent animated video called "Target Practice," write stories about and death and destruction, and post despairing comments and suicide threats.

Here's where the Internet does have a role: It enables anonymous strangers to be sounding boards for and supporters of destructive behavior, from eating disorders to racism to suicide. It makes information and encouragement (both negative and positive) more accessible (see "Secret Society of Starving" in the NYT in '02 and "Japan's Net suicide tragedy" in my newsletter). This is why parents and caregivers need to be engaged in kids' online lives. Besides a child's own mental state and behavior, one tip-off is large amounts of time spent online. That time can of course be creative, academic, social - the online version of normal teenage activity and interaction - but when combined with depression or loneliness, it's a call for care and attention. I hope all of us, kids' peers and caregivers, will get better at recognizing the online signs better *before* they lead to tragedy. Here's more coverage at and the Minneapolis Star Tribune (among nearly 3,000 results on the story in Google News).

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Mac attacks?

Because more and more people are buying Apple computers, their OS X operating system is "increasingly at risk of attack" by hackers, says Symantec (as reported by many news outlets, including ZDNET. But take that with a grain of salt, suggests a San Jose Mercury News column: "This according to astonishingly self-serving Symantec Internet Security Threat Reports, a document that says far more about the looming vulnerabilities in Symantec's business model than it does about those in Apple's operating system," says Good Morning Silicon Valley. What's useful for family PC owners to know is that it's not just the smaller number of Macintoshes out there (vs. the huge number of Windows computers) that makes Macs more secure. Yes, "generally speaking, as an operating system's market share grows, it garners a bit more attention from malware authors.... But let's be honest, it's going to be years before OS X can reach the standard set by Windows in this category. There have been 37 vulnerabilities in Mac OS X in the past year, all of which were quickly and efficiently patched (none were exploited because OS X requires a root password before it will install new software)" - including viruses. This week Apple released its latest patch, which prevents phishers from fooling users of the Safari Web browser, ZDNET reports in another article.

Latest on viruses

"The majority are written to steal money and identities from people," not mess up their computers, ZDNET reports. Those would be Trojan-type viruses that install spyware that captures passwords or credit card numbers or phishers' email that trick people into giving out financial information. For more on phishing, see my "To foil phishers" and the Seattle Times on this "new face of fraud."

New 'toy': All IMs, all the time

There's a new device you may soon be seeing on your child's wish list: the Zipit, just for instant messaging. With it, the communicators at your house will be able to participate in up to 99 simultaneous conversations! Just what you wanted. But its real upside is that it's a lot cheaper than texting on cell phones, which kids love and with which they're running up huge phone bills. The Zipit costs $100, with no service fees. It just requires its users to have the free IM accounts (via Yahoo, MSN, or AOL's AIM) that so many kids have and a wireless broadband connection at home, the library, a cybercafe, or anywhere (it's a cross between a texting-enabled cell phone and a laptop with a wireless connection). Another potential upside, cited by the Chicago Tribune, is the way it would free up the family PC for parents in households where the PC's monopolized by young communicators. But that's a downside too: They'll have even more opportunity to chat with friends 24x7 and not get to their homework! It also doesn't have any parental controls on it. But as far as I can tell from the Zipit Web site, because it connects IM-ers via their MSN, Yahoo, or AIM accounts, those services' options or preferences will apply. So, if you've configured the preferences with your child (such as blocking anyone not on their buddy list or logging their messages so you can check them later), they'll most likely apply on Zipit. For more on this, see "IM risks & tips."

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Utah's new anti-porn law

Utah's trying something Pennsylvania has tried and failed to do: make Internet providers block access to porn for customers. A federal court struck down Pennsylvania's law as unconstitutional, but Utah is forging ahead, CNET reports. Critics are cited as saying state anti-Net porn laws are routinely struck down, and Utah's legislation is "worded so vaguely its full impact is still unclear" - Internet providers could be anything from "cable companies to universities, coffee shops, and homes with open 802.11 wireless connections." The law also requires the state attorney general to maintain a database of adult-content sites that providers will have to block. CNET adds that "supporters of the Utah bill, such as advocacy group Citizens Against Pornography, had pressed for the measure as a way to give parents more control of their home Internet connections." I suspect that, for First Amendment reasons, any court to hear a challenge to this bill will find that filtering software and services are a better support to parents. (CNET has links to the text of the law, the Pennsylvania story, and a law professor's critique of the bill.)

For safe, smart IM-ing

Especially from a parent's perspective, "IM" could stand for "insecure messaging" instead of "instant messaging." That's because of 1) how many tweens and teens love this form of communication, and 2) the ever-increasing number of IM-borne threats to the family PC. ZDNET writes about a dad and computer security expert who told his 13-year-old daughter that she could use AIM (AOL's instant messaging service), but if she ever downloaded a virus, "the result would be no IM for a long, long time." He and other security specialists are saying the best protection is education, which falls on parents' shoulders, because kids are the computer users most likely to click on images and other IM attachments they think their friends are sending (corporate IM users have more safeguards). The problem is, hackers are posing as our kids' friends - screennames on their buddy lists - saying, "click here to see this cool image" or "hear this great tune." So here's the very simple education part: Tell your kids that, if they get a message like that, start a new IM conversation with that screenname/buddy (don't reply to the msg telling them to click), and ask that buddy if s/he just sent that file, image, or tune (or just call the friend on the phone and ask about the message). If they're online and reply saying "no," don't click! Someone's posing as them. If the buddy is offline and can't reply, just don't click. The safest thing is not to get into the habit of sending each other files and links (unfortunately), because then kids get into the habit of clicking. Nothing really malicious has been attacking family PCs via IM yet, but the potential is there. "Trojan horses" that install software on family PCs have been going around, and that software could eventually be worms, viruses, and code that turns a computer into a "zombie" that other people can control.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Sony's PSP: Kids' must-have?

If they're gamers, they'll probably think so. The games part of Sony's new PSP is fabulous, I'm hearing. "As a portable game machine, it's a peerless piece of work," says the Washington Post's tech writer Rob Pegoraro. They'll love the multiplayer capability - its "breakthrough feature" - because "it's just more fun to compete against other people. You don't get the same sublime sense of satisfaction when the car you incinerate with a hail of missiles is driven by the computer" instead of another player, Rob says. Arriving on store shelves this week, "this $250 device is Sony's answer to Nintendo's Game Boy and DS handhelds. It also represents yet another try by Sony to get into the portable-media market Apple's iPod owns." That's where it fails, both Rob and USATODAY's Ed Baig say - the media features. Movies, at $20 a pop, can't be played on any other device, and the UMD disks they come on aren't rewriteable; i.e., you can't put tunes or photos on them once you've seen the movie. Rob suggests that if you want to listen to music and view your pictures, just get an iPod Photo. Here's CNET's similar take.

Gizmondo: The hype & the downside

Great. Just what any parent wants: A portable game device that allows gamers to get a fix on each other's exact physical location. And judging by the news coverage, the Gizmondo is going to be one very popular item. It's now available in the UK. For 229 pounds ($440), "the most tricked-out handheld device yet created ... plays games, music and videos; takes digital pictures; and sends and receives text messages to and from mobile phones. It includes Bluetooth for multiplayer games [over the Net] and can be a tracking device via its GPS satellite navigation," MarketWatch reports. Parental controls just aren't keeping up with the increasingly mobile Internet! Gizmondo's makers suggest that GPS tracking won't be just a minor add-on but rather a "game element" - which could land the device on every gamer's holiday wish list next fall. Here's what they say: "One of the many things that make this pocket-sized device unique is the GPS functionality. As well as offering location-based services, the Gizmondo will be able to perform satellite navigation, permissions-based tracking [if that means *user* permission, parents and kids will need to configure them together], geofencing, and location broadcasting to mobile telephones. But one of the most significant advances affects the mobile gaming genre; GPS functionality is already being developed into games to make the users' location in relation to other gamers and their environment an actual game element." Here's picture of Gizmondo at Geekzone in New Zealand.