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Friday, March 31, 2006

State do-not-email laws: No help

It has to be tough being a lawmaker these days - especially one concerned about online kids' safety - as everybody struggles to keep up with tech-literate kids and their favorite technologies. The great majority of child-protection ideas aired in hearings and promoted by lobbyists are undoubtedly well-meaning, if not always useful. But there's one type of "child-safety" legislation that can actually increase the risk of what it claims to fix: the do-not-email laws that have created email address registries in Utah and Michigan and that are under consideration in Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, and Iowa. Who says? The US Federal Trade Commission in its "National Do Not Email Registry: A Report to Congress." The FTC concludes: "Any Do Not Email Registry that earmarked particular email addresses as belonging to or used by children would raise very grave concerns…. The possibility that such a list could fall into the hands of the Internet's most dangerous users, including pedophiles, is truly chilling." For the reasons why and for some parenting ideas where young online communicators are concerned, please click to this week's issue of my newsletter. Site for guys

You know a Web site's a phenomenon when the New York Times publishes a profile of the site and nothing but the site. In this case that would be The site is heavy on the ads, targets males in their late teens/early 20s, and "mixes animation, music, video games, grainy home movies of oddball characters, supermodels in bikinis and pop culture parodies" in a fast-paced, sensory-overload sort of way. Like many Web 2.0 sites, it's lowering its targeted age. "This year Heavy will increase its production of original programming tenfold, to 600 segments. It will spin off one of its popular channels, 'Teriyaki Strips,' which features animation with an Asian theme, into a separate site aimed at teenage boys." Some ads test on the site, then move to television. The site "commissions amateur videomakers to create short videos featuring the masked king character who now appears in Burger King's TV commercials." But they have to be made less risque for TV. Virgin, Unilever, Verizon, and NBC Universal are among other advertisers.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

iPod's help for ears

Apple Computers is celebrating its 30th birthday this week, but its customers are the ones getting the birthday present, it seems. In response, it appears, to a spate of news stories about how earbuds can damage hearing, Apple now offers free software that lets you limit the volume on your iPod, CNET reports. "The free update, available for video iPods and all iPod Nano models, also includes a parental lock option. After setting the volume limit, parents can lock the setting with a combination code to prevent children from raising the maximum volume without their knowledge." Here's the page at Apple's site where the update can be downloaded.

More tunes on phones

Cellphones are still way behind MP3 players in the mobile-music biz, even in the UK, but phone tunes are definitely on the rise, the BBC reports. "Nearly 7% of all chart music [including ringtones] bought this year has been downloaded through a mobile service," says the BBC, adding that "the mobile music business, including ringtones, is now thought to be worth 3.2 billion pounds [$5.6 billion]." Of course, that's a fraction of the music being downloaded to computers from music retail sites (representing "86% of all legal digital downloads of chart music"), which are still a fraction of music CD business. But the ground is shifting under the music industry's feet. In the UK, Vodafone has a new service offering phone tunes for 1.50 pounds each (about $2.60), and Orange will soon follow suit, the BBC reports. Meanwhile, ClickZ Stats reports that mobile video is "set for growth" (that would include music videos as well as audio), and PC World reports there are more and more opportunities to watch TV on our phones in the US.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

6,000 students, 6,000 hackers?

Having a handle on 6,000 students' Net use doesn't seem to be that big a deal to Southwest Allen County Schools' network administrator Mark East, even though he jokingly told the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette that's about how many hackers there are on his network. The article provides insights into how some public schools are handling students online safety. Most of the districts in this part of Indiana block blogging and social-networking sites, but workarounds are found. For example, "senior Larry Buchanan, 17, said when he wants to access his Facebook account, he goes to the Web site, which will bypass any blocks put on a site by the school system." But countermeasures work both ways. "Computer lab supervisors keep track of which students are using which computers at a certain time and the Web sites they visit leave somewhat of a fingerprint…. East said if he notices a particular student doing inappropriate things on the computer three times, he'll turn the evidence over to the principal, who must decide how to handle the situation." One assistant principal told the Journal Gazette that's happened 32 times at his school so far this year, and "punishments have ranged from suspension from computer class for one day to all-day in-school suspension." Searching for pornography would spell "an out-of-school suspension, but that hasn't happened this year."

More important is monitoring the information students upload more than what they're trying to download. One smart principal sent a letter to parents advising them to monitor their kids' blogging and told the Journal Gazette he tries to do the same, sometimes going to a student's profile with him or her in his office and talking about how much info s/he's providing and who could be reading it. Now that would be a memorable encounter with one's principal!

Cyberbullying study

A new study in the UK has just given Britons a cyberbullying reality check. The BBC reports that a MSN/YouGov survey found that more than 10% of UK teens have been bullied online; 13% say cyberbullying is worse than physical bullying; 24% know a victim; 44% know someone who has been threatened via email or instant-messaging; "about one-third know of instances where bullies hacked into mail or IM accounts and sent embarrassing material from them"; and 62% know of rumors or malicious gossip being spread online; 74% did not go to their parents or anyone for advice last time they were cyberbullied (reportedly out of fear their Net access would be shut down). Meanwhile, half of parents are unaware of cyberbullying. It might be good for parents to bring this subject up over a meal sometime – maybe to say the Net won't get shut down if cyberbullying comes up, and we are there for you if it does, so come and tell us (there are links to parent guides to cyberbullying at MSN UK and in the US). Meanwhile, the survey didn't appear to cover another obvious online venue for cyberbullying, including in the UK: social-networking sites where young users post comments in each other's blogs and profiles (see the Marin Independent Journal, which singles out MySpace because it has the lionshare of traffic).

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Student's school-filtering fix

The best part of this 16-year-old's commentary in the Salem [Ore.] Statesman Journal is not about the flaws in his school's Web filtering system, though he presents a convincing case – e.g., "some sites are blocked for strange or false reasons, leaving students scratching their heads as to why something on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Web site is blocked for 'jokes'." The best part is his fix. It respects students' intelligence and involves accountability. For example, "Start by giving each student a personal logon and password. Then use new software that would start out with a basic list of allowed sites…. If a student were to try to access a site unknown to the software, a screen would be produced that would inform the student that the visit would be recorded and the site would be reviewed by the school district's network administrator." I doubt there's any discussion about protecting online kids that wouldn't benefit from the subjects' input. Most adults have developed a certain amount of life literacy and most kids have considerable tech literacy; both are needed in the discussion.

Cellphones & exams in the UK

Will this be happening in the US soon, as student per capita cellphone use approaches that of the UK? Across The Pond, "students can be marked down or even failed for just having a mobile phone with them during exams, whether they use them to cheat or not," CNET reports. The number of students penalized for cheating was up 27% last summer over the previous year, and possession of cellphones during exams accounted for about 25% of the penalizing, according to the UK's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Of course, phones possession wasn't the only issue – other offenses included "plagiarism, collusion or copying another candidate's work, typically in coursework done before a final exam" … "cheating or disruptive behavior during exams, writing obscenities on their exam papers, or failing to follow instructions." Still, the number of people penalized is relatively low: "less than one incident for every 1,500 exams taken."

Webcams flying off shelves

That's good and bad. Webcams are being used for some creative films that are being uploaded by teens to video-hosting sites like On the upside, for example, a creatively edited 75-second video called "Breakup," by 17-year-old "Bowiechick" (her YouTube screenname), received more than 210,000 pageviews as of yesterday, CNET reported. It's not clear, CNET says, how much "Breakup" affected sales, but "after Bowiechick posted a second video, it was revealed that she shoots her clips with Logitech's Quickcam Orbit MP, which retails for about $100," and Logitech's Webcams "were among Amazon's 100 best-selling electronics items on Friday." By yesterday, "two more of the company's cameras broke into the top 100, including the Quickcam Pro 5000." It's the Webcam sales part that's good and bad. The kind of creativity and initiative "Bowiechick" showed is great, as long as that's what all these Webcams are used for. But they can also be used for child exploitation (see "Kids & Webcams: Disturbing story"). And CNET hints at the potential for a different kind of exploitation: "after reviewing 'Breakup' and another video where Bowiechick demonstrated Logitech's avatar effects, [Logitech spokesperson Nancy] Morrison said the company would like to know more about the budding filmmaker," though Morrison said the company has had no contact with her. It's good her public only knows her as Bowiechick; maybe she'll strategize with some trusted adults before she reveals her real name. [Is YouTube the next MySpace? Since the site's launch in December, it has gone from 3 million video viewings/day to 30 million and was the "talk of Tinseltown" this week, CNET reports.]

Monday, March 27, 2006 craze in UK

In terms of "local" traffic, anyway, it looks like it's Cyworld in Korea, MySpace in the US, and Bebo in the UK. All of these sites are international, of course, but there does seem to be a cultural element to social-networking. has "racked up more than 22 million members" in its 13 months of existence, the BBC says, and – though targeted at people 13-30 – enjoys major traffic from school and college students. And this will sound familiar to Americans: "But this popularity has come with a price. Some schools and colleges have stopped pupils from using the site and block access to it during the school day." The BBC makes a distinction between Bebo and another popular UK-based site called Friends Reunited, a distinction that sounds like that between MySpace and on this side of The Pond. Friendster and Friends Reunited reportedly have more controls on the user's experience and are less about the personalization and customization so popular among teens exploring and presenting their identities. As for cultural elements, there do seem to be fewer distinctions between the English-language sites MySpace and Bebo (Cyworld's homepage is in Korean). Besides language, having online populations tied to the physical headquarters of a company may be mostly a question of marketing reach. [For more on Cyworld, see my item on it last week.]

Behind France's iPod law

It hasn't passed both houses of France's legislature yet, but it has stirred up some interesting and important discussion about digital music and consumer rights. The Los Angeles Times has an editorial today that suggests the motivation behind a law meant to open up iTunes to all music players: "The rationale for the measure, two [National] Assembly deputies told Reuters, was to 'prevent the emergence of a monopoly in the supply of online culture'." That makes sense (even though France often argues for *French* cultural protectionism), because both the Times and a Washington Post commentary say there's an obvious workaround plenty of consumers use anyway. Post tech writer Rob Pegoraro explains that "you can burn a copy-restricted download to an audio CD, then copy that CD's music right back to the computer in an open, unrestricted format. All the big music-download stores allow this untidy workaround." Rob thinks Apple – which, with its 70% market share, could probably afford to pull out of France - should just license its FairPlay copy-restriction tech to other online music providers. Because if laws don’t open up iTunes, hackers will. "Trying to stop a mass-market, proprietary format from being deciphered by motivated, skilled outsiders is like pushing water uphill with a sponge." [For more, see my item on this last week.]