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Friday, December 05, 2008

New Net Nanny

Net Nanny, parental-control software for family computers, has released its latest version (not long after issuing Net Nanny for Macs), and PC Magazine gave the product 4.5 stars and its Editor's Choice Award. "Net Nanny does everything a parental-control utility should do. It also offers unique features like secure Web-traffic filtering and ESRB-based game control. Balancing privacy and security, it can record IM conversations only if they seem dangerous." The product, Net Nanny 6.0, sends email alerts to parents at work and allows them to configure or change preferences from work. SafeEyes 5.0, CyberPatrol Parent Controls 7.7, and Net Nanny 5.6 were next on PC Magazine's list, each having been awarded four stars. NetNanny and CyberPatrol run about $40, SafeEyes about $50.

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YouTube's crackdown on suggestive content

"It's a bad week for Internet porn,"a Wired blogger reports. Indeed. Given the news from Ning and now with YouTube "cracking down on sexually suggestive content," as VentureBeat reports. Here's some of what YouTube's crackdown looks like: "Videos that are 'sexually suggestive' (but not prohibited) will now be age-restricted to viewers 18 or older [if younger ones are truthful about their ages when they register]. In addition, these types of videos will be algorithmically demoted on pages like 'Most Viewed' and 'Top Favorites'." Also, "thumbnails" (little still images that represent videos in YouTube) will be automatically generated by the site rather than chosen by the videos' creators. You see, people would put sexy "thumbnails" at the midpoint of their videos even if they had nothing to do with sex just to game the system and get them to rise to the top, and more likely to be seen. The result was index pages of thumbnails suggesting a lot more sex-related stuff than was actually there, making the site look more disturbing to parents than it needed to be and, for advertisers, apparently not a great environment for their ads. I touch on this in "Watch this video, parents!" Here's the rest of it from YouTube itself.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Ning to delete all adult content

Ning, a site where anyone can create his or her very own social-networking site (see "Mini-MySpaces") and where people are doing so at a rate of "around 2,000 new networks a day, announced the end of its "red-light district" this week . It's a relatively small red-light district - Ning told me less than 1% of its more than 600,000 social networks - but apparently legal adult content was becoming a business problem. "We don’t want to be in the policing business and, unchecked, that's where this is heading," CEO Gina Bianchini wrote in Ning's blog. Ning has a reputation for strict compliance with federal law requiring ISPs to report illegal child-abuse imagery ("child porn"), so that was never allowed, but the legal stuff, Bianchini indicates, interestingly, was creating "a rise in volume of illegal adult social networks." The adult networks disappear by January 1, she said. This development is great news for all the other social-network creators - teachers, parents, artists, athletes, journalists, hobbyists, cancer survivors, alumni groups, government entities (e.g., the US State Department), and businesses. But if anyone's eyebrows are raised upon hearing that all these social site owners were on the same service as porn operators, it's important for you to know that people don't browse around Ning the way they might, possibly, a social networking site (and even then, most teen users just go to their own and their friends' profiles). Ning isn't a social site. It's a giant collection of social sites. Its member social networks are the destinations, not Ning itself. Here's coverage at CNET. A bit more interesting data on Ning as a global resource from Fast Company magazine last May: "About 40% of Ning's social networks originate outside the United States, and members from 176 countries have signed up, with the service already available in several languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Dutch."

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

New online-safety-education tool

Canadian children's advocacy organization the Media Awareness Network has an interesting approach to online-safety education for elementary and middle school students. Called "Passport to the Internet," it's a graphically appealing virtual environment for which students in grades 4-8 earn their "passports" by choosing avatars that walk through lessons in safety, ethics, bullying, critical thinking, and privacy management in "MyFace" - lessons that simulate "online environments used by young people on a daily basis," the Media Awareness Network told me in an email conversation. The curriculum can be licensed in either English or French by schools, districts, or education departments or ministries. Based on viewing the demo, it seems to me the curriculum would be more effective - at least here in the States - at the younger end of the targeted grade spectrum. Two reasons occur: "Passport" suggests we're talking about a different country or space to which one travels, and teens, at least, make less and less of a distinction between the online "space" and the "real world" one; social networking is just part of socializing. The other reason is that this is a curriculum by and from adults to kids, more effective in elementary school. I think for the middle-school level we need collectively to figure out how to work social norming into online-risk-prevention education.

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Teacher's tough Facebook-privacy call

An elementary school teacher in Charlotte, N.C., faces the possibility of being fired for her comments about students in Facebook, the Charlotte Observer reports. Among the activities listed "teaching chitlins in the ghetto of Charlotte." Her lawyer told the Observer that she thought the comment could only be seen by her Facebook friends. So either she didn't fully understand how to use the site's privacy features or a "friend" made her comments public. In any case, her story "is now part of a national debate that pits teachers' right to free expression against how communities expect them to behave," according to the Observer. Though this is more about judgment and discretion than technology, it does point to where technology does have impact: the invisible audiences of the social Web, as mentioned by social media research danah boyd in a 2006 interview. This story makes clear that it isn't just online kids who need to be thinking about who sees what they upload to the social Web.

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Oz child advocates oppose filtering

US educators frustrated with school filters will be interested in this news from Oz: "Support for the Government's plan to censor the Internet has hit rock bottom, with even some children's welfare groups now saying that that the mandatory filters, aimed squarely at protecting kids, are ineffective and a waste of money," The Age reports. The plan - "to block 'illegal' content for all Australian internet users and 'inappropriate' adult content on an opt-in basis" - has also received "harsh opposition" from Australian consumers, online rights groups, the Greens, the Opposition, and the Internet industry. The Age cites the view of Holly Doel-Mackaway of Save the Children, "the largest independent children's rights agency in the world," that educating kids and parents is "the way to empower young people to be safe internet users." Filtering's flawed, she told the paper, because it doesn't get to the problem at its source and can't help but block useful online resources. "Live trials" of the filtering are scheduled to start by the holidays, The Age adds.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Questions raised by Megan Meier case

Although Lori Drew was convicted only on misdemeanor charges last week and though the case may yet be dismissed, the questions it raises are important ones:

  • Legal

    Although what happened between the Meiers and Drews in the St. Louis area in 2006 was about cyberbullying, the case against Drew wasn't, actually. It was about computer fraud. Ms. Drew's involvement in the creation of a fake profile (or real profile of a fictional teen boy character) was called by the prosecutors "unauthorized access" violating federal computer fraud law, the New York Times reports. According to the Washington Post, the case thus "expands the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed in 1986 as a tool against hackers, to include social networking Web sites." Even so, the Post cites legal experts as saying, this was "the country's first cyberbullying verdict."

    The Times reports that MySpace's terms of service require users to be "truthful and accurate" when they sign up for an account, yet a lot of people of all ages all over the Web fictionalize or veil their identities for many reasons - the way authors with pen names have as long as there have been books. So do cops pretending to be 14-year-old girls as they set up stings to catch online predators. In other words, there are both legitimate (including protective) and ill-intentioned reasons to be pseudonymous or anonymous online. Does this case jeopardize legitimate use of anonymity (see also "Fictionalizing their profiles" and "Online anonymity vs. cyberbullying concerns")?

    Another question is about those terms of service. Does this case mean social-networking sites must enforce their terms of use? That could be both good and bad. Terms of use could become more of a mutual contract between site and users whereby users (or their parents) might actually have some sort of recourse if terms are violated by bullies. On the downside, rigid enforcement does not always have good results, where human beings (and adolescent behavior) are concerned. This is a good reminder, though, that parents and kids together check site terms of use for what they say about truthfulness. I think it also suggests that social sites consider putting their terms in plain English! But it's concerning if, as the result of this case, violation of terms could be considered criminal behavior. The proverbial jury's still out on that last point.

    Bad for case law: "Let's also make one thing very clear," writes social media researcher danah boyd (who lower-cases her name). "This case is NOT TYPICAL [it's extreme and extremely unusual]. Many are clamoring to make laws based on this case and one thing we know is that bad cases make bad case law. Most of the cases focus on the technology rather than the damage of psychological abuse and the misuse of adult power." I agree. This story, if not the case, is not about computers or social networking or solely online behavior; it's about behavior. Which leads to the parenting set of questions....

  • Parental

    The message that parents need to be involved in right ways - as moderators (in every sense of the word) and not accomplices - is only getting stronger. Though this is a tough message for busy parents to hear, we want to be in the mix. Just as we've always needed to be engaged in our teens' offline social lives - because a primary task of adolescent brain development is risk assessment - we need to be involved in their online lives too.

    We also don't want our role to be diminished in favor of "protective" law or policy, because we don't want our children's free speech and privacy rights taken away or in any way diminished ostensibly "for their own protection." Engaged parents are vital supporters of their children's rights.

    An important aspect of this for parents to keep in mind is that the high visibility of an extreme case and increasing news coverage of cyberbullying in general do not mean bullying online is on the rise or adolescent behavior has changed. This is important to keep in mind about social networking too. Danah boyd makes the point that the Internet probably hasn't increased the amount of bullying; rather, it has made it and all adolescent behavior more visible - certainly, but naturally, with disturbing effect - to adults. "Now adults can see it. Most adults think that this means that the Internet is the culprit, but this logic is flawed and dangerous. Stifling bullying online won't make bullying go away; it'll just send it back underground. The visibility gives us an advantage. If we see it, we can work with it to stop it." Yes!

  • Potential positive outcome

    Peer support and counseling online - by "digital street workers" - is what danah boyd proposes. When she was in college, danah writes, fellow students volunteered as street workers to help at-risk "teens on the street find resources and help. They directed them to psychologists, doctors, and social workers. We need a program like this for the digital streets. We need college-aged young adults to troll the digital world looking out for teens who are in trouble and helping them seek help. We need online counselors who can work with minors to address their behavioral issues without forcing the minor to contend with parents or bureaucracy. We need online social workers that can connect with kids and help them understand their options."

    She's talking about kids whose parents simply aren't there - the young people who are at risk online. "They are the kids who are being beaten at home and blog about it. They are the kids who publicly humiliate other kids to get attention. They are the kids who seek sex with strangers as a form of validation. They are the kids who are lonely, suicidal, and self-destructive.... They are calling out for help. Why aren't we listening? And why are we blaming the technology instead?" When we stop doing that, we can really start helping at-risk youth online and increasing online safety.

    I propose that all social sites and services employ...

    1. "Digital street workers" (older peers/young adults as online community volunteers) and
    2. Paid, trained counselors or social workers on their customer-service staffs - in addition to community moderators for socializing by minors.

    Your views on any of this would be most welcome - via anne[at], in this blog, or in our ConnectSafely forum. With your permission, I often publish readers' comments for everybody's benefit.

    Related links

  • "The 'MySpace Suicide' Case, Social Networking, and the Law" in Findlaw
  • My first post on the Megan Meier case, Nov. '07 "Extreme cyberbullying: US case comes to light." See also "Dismissal urged in Megan Meier case."

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  • Monday, December 01, 2008

    'Cyber Monday' alert!

    Apparently today is the biggest online shopping day of the year, but everybody needs to be extra alert for spam and phishing scams right through the holidays (not to mention every day). The Monday after the US's Thanksgiving "consumers are expected to spend $821 million this year, up 12% from 2007," USATODAY reports. "But a wobbly economy, combined with a consumer thirst for too-good-to-be-true bargains, has motivated cybercrooks to unleash a torrent of spam, phishing scams and malicious software." USATODAY adds that last year, phishing attacks rose 300% on Thanksgiving, and worse is expected this year. It's an excellent opportunity to teach critical thinking. Help your kids understand that, online too, too good to be true is usually exactly that: not true, not a "deal." USATODAY cites security experts as urging users "to be wary of cut-rate deals from unfamiliar online merchants. They also suggest using multiple passwords when shopping and using the most up-to-date Web browsers and anti-virus software."

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