Dear Subscribers:Here's our lineup for this first full week of November:
- Web ratings: Big step forward
- Family tech: Fast connections & firewalls; Home networking
- Web News Briefs: Stressed election sites; 'Net generation'; Preteens on online parenting; Parent wins case; Politician's about face; Enabling the disabled; E-toys for young digerati; Stocking stuffer; E-advanced placement….
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Web ratings relaunched!
Several of you have written in recently about Web ratings - about how there really should be a system on the Web like that of the US film industry, with G, PG, PG-13, R, and X ratings. Well, there is - in a way - but clearly it hasn't been on every parent's radar screen.
Subscriber and librarian Mindy in Michigan emailed us a thoughtful dissenting view of Web ratings: "The magnitude of the Internet is such that it would be impossible for any human or computer program to keep up with its ever-changing content…. Until there is a massive improvement in technology, rating the Web seems, to me, to be impossible."
We ran Mindy's comment by Stephen Balkam, executive director of the UK-based Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), in an interview this week. His response was, "I totally agree! What we're trying to do is not rate the Web but have a system whereby sites can self-label. We can't do what the film rating system does [actually rate all the Web sites out there]. Instead, we're putting the onus on content providers themselves to self-label, focusing on the top 1,000 sites, which constitute 80% of all Web traffic - also top children's sites and adult sites…. What we're looking for is critical mass."
This month ICRA, first launched in 1996 as RSACi (Recreational Software Advisory Council on the Internet), takes another big step toward "critical mass": "We're about to launch a totally revised and updated system toward the end of this month," Mr. Balkam told us.
He's not just talking about tweaking software. The success of a ratings system for this largely ungoverned and uncontrollable, grassroots, global medium rides on a lot of factors, players, and activities - in a bunch of countries. Certainly it requires software updates, but some of the software is owned by other organizations. Getting the companies that make the most popular Web browsers - Netscape's (AOL's) Communicator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer - to write and update their software so that it recognizes the Web ratings requires negotiation.
Negotiation is a huge part of what an international Web ratings association does - especially if it's done in the multi-community consensus-building spirit of the Internet. ICRA's process is a fascinating case study for that approach. In addition to software compatibility, ICRA also has to work on getting the browser companies, as well as its members (e.g., IBM, Bertelsmann, British Telecom), to "market" the system - raise public awareness of this online-safety tool. The system can't work if people don't know it's there to use.
And of course Web sites need to be persuaded to rate themselves; as Mindy aptly pointed out, nobody can do it for all of them (or, for that matter, for all of us parents!). One key group of Web sites that needs to be on board (in order for children to be protected) is adult Web sites. "We've been talking to a number of key people in the adult industry to get them to adoption [of Web ratings]," Balkam told us, adding that they're getting more organized now, establishing trade associations, which means someone to negotiate with.
But ICRA's smart. It's not just relying on negotiation. It's added an incentive for Web sites to rate themselves: reduced traffic if they don't. Parents using either Netscape or Explorer can easily configure the browser so that it blocks sites that aren't rated. So, as Balkam points out, increasingly, "it's in Web sites' best interests to self-label."
Then there's one more very important piece to this momentum-building puzzle: the redesign of the rating system itself. Balkam told us we'll see a number of new features in this month's relaunch, as well as some great additions a bit further down the line. Here are the lists….
- New labels: The system will now alert parents to content promoting the use of alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, weapons, and hate or intolerance (in addition to sex, profanity, and violence, which were in the previous version).
- "Context modifiers": This means that, in educational, medical, and artistic subject areas, the system's getting more sophisticated, or "granular." For example, the distinction will be made between frontal nudity in art (e.g., Michelangelo's David) vs. frontal nudity at Playboy.com.
- From numbers to words: "We've moved away from the 0-4 scale," Stephen said, referring to a system that requires Web publishers to apply a numerical value indicating the amount of profanity or sex-related content (see the chart on ICRA.org's "About ICRA" page). Instead, ICRA is "moving into a labeling vocabulary" whereby a Web publisher just states whether or not the site has violence, profanity, promotion of drug use, etc., without putting any value on it. This way, Stephen said, "parents will be able to decide exactly what they want for their children - they'll have full granularity of being able to allow or not allow access to any or all material."
- Chat: With this important kids' safety feature, rated sites will be able to tell parents if they contain chat rooms and - this is key, too - whether or not they're monitored.
In the works (for next year):
All these are big improvements from a parent's perspective. They actually give browsers - software that's free to anyone - many of the same safety features of and a similar level of parental control as commercial products like filtering software and kids' browsers.
- Web site black lists and white lists: ICRA is getting the browser companies to include technology that allows parents to block sites on a black or "no" list, as well as add sites to it. Same for a "yes" or white list of, for example, great sites for kids.
- Other languages: With the help of European Union funding, the ICRA system (its questionnaire for Web sites to self-rate) will be accessible to Web sites in French, German, and Spanish.
- Film-type ratings: ICRA's talking with the US film industry about "mapping their system to our system," so Web site ratings will look familiar at least to US moviegoers.
You can see right now how to configure your browser to "read" Web ratings. Just go to ICRA.org and click on "Parents - How to Use RASCi," right in the middle of the home page (the Web site's designed in frames, so we can't give you the page's direct URL). There are instructions for Netscape Communicator 4.5x and for Internet Explorer 3.0, 4.0, and 5.0. But you might want to wait till the end of the month to see if any instructions change with the relaunch.
GetNetWise.org has a page on Web ratings that briefly describes rating technology and links to other, smaller-scale rating systems.
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- A word to the wise: Fast connections & firewalls
If any of you are considering getting a fast Internet connection for your house - either with a cable modem or a DSL line from the phone company - we urge you to read this real-life story about viruses, firewalls, and family computers . In it, SafeKids.com's Larry Magid describes finding nearly 3,000 infected files on three home PCs, how they arrived, what he did about them, and how long it took. He also tells you what to get to keep this from happening to your family (whether you have one computer or many)! As for those of you in Europe and Japan with wired connections, do tell us if you're having virus troubles - via firstname.lastname@example.org.
- A helpful home
Metaphorically speaking, the light bulb went on when we read "Gadgets can keep an eye on your gadgets", Larry's Family Tech this week. What we mean is, we began to see how home networking - the kind that involves everything from lighting to computers to home security - will really work. Larry makes it seem a little less daunting to the average homeowner, from hinting at the costs to explaining the how-to (a little help from an electrician wouldn't hurt).
For a thorough look at just networking computers at home (using phone lines), here's "Home Networking Grows up, Sort Of" from the New York Times. The piece describes one very positive (unusual) experience with a hardware/software networking product called AnyPoint Phoneline Home Network from Intel, mentioning several other products, and followed by a reality check.
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Web News Briefs
- Stressed out election sites
It's tough to be popular! That's the message heard from Web sites that provided blow-by-blow reporting on the US presidential election this week. According to CNET, conventional-media coverage of the election results was so confusing Tuesday night and Wednesday that voters turned to the Web to figure it all out. Though what they got was less than satisfying, Wired News reports that Wednesday was the best day news Web sites ever had. TheStandard.com agrees. Which begs the question: As a medium, has the Web surpassed television in credibility? That's not an entirely fair question, since we're talking about TV, radio, and print news Web sites, and the Web is a big "place" with an extremely wide credibility spectrum. But, still, this election does say something about the Web and where we turn for news. Where did you turn for election news? Do tell us. (If you live outside the US and have a mild interest in US politics, did you find the Web useful?)
BTW, keep those newspapers with headlines like "Bush wins!" They could be valuable. CNET reports that some 400 newspapers (Wednesday morning editions that jumped the gun in declaring victory for the Texas governor) were up for bid at eBay.com.
- The 'Net Generation'
Whatever parents and teachers think about it, the Internet is becoming a player in more and more parts of kids' lives - from schoolwork to entertainment to communication (the latter two often being the same thing, of course). According to ZDNet, Media Metrix says 12-to-17-year-olds (in the US) spend, on average, more than 5 hours online a month. ZDNet also cites a recent survey of the same age group by the Leo Burnett ad agency, finding that "the top reason for going online was the sense of belonging that comes from an oft-visited chat room - from shooting instant messages back and forth with friends or from reading the postings of kids with the same interests or problems. The survey also found that children pulled both academic and social skills out of these interactions." ZDNet quotes a researcher saying that peer support, online or anywhere, enhances both intellectual development and confidence in a child. Probably what we all need to think about, for our own children and those everywhere, is how to promote their use of constructive chat environments. If you have ideas on how to do that - at home or anywhere - email them to us.
- Online-parenting: What preteens say
Most 8-to-12-year-olds - 52% - believe parents should worry more about what they see on TV than what they see on the Internet, according to a recent poll by Harris Interactive and Nickelodeon. On the other hand, 48% said the opposite, according to eMarketer. The study, conducted quarterly, showed that parents continue to monitor their children while online - only 11% of all 8-to-12-year-olds say they have parents who do not restrict their Web activities. Here are a few more findings:
- 81% say their parents know where they go on the Web
- 61% say their parents will not let them give personal information to a Web site.
- 52% say their parents regulate their online time.
- Parent to access school Net records
It was probably the first lawsuit about a parent's right to review school Internet records. According to the New York Times, a New Hampshire Superior Court judge this week ruled that a parent was entitled, by the state's Right-to-Know law, to review a copy of the "Internet history log" files from school computers in two Exeter, N.H., school districts. The parent, who has been a critic of the schools boards' decision not to require filtering or blocking software on school computers, brought the lawsuit last summer. As of today (Friday), the districts hadn't yet decided if they would appeal the decision. The Times column, Cyber Law Journal, reports that one of the main issues in the case was the balance between the values of privacy and disclosure, and it appears the judge decided they could be reconciled by having the schools remove students IDs and passwords from the history files before turning them over to the parent.
- Politician's about face on filtering
Congressional candidate Jeff Pollock of Oregon, former supporter of school Internet filtering, found his own campaign Web site was being blocked in schools using such software. According to ZDNet, he took his pro-filtering statement off his Web site after being tipped off by a study finding that dozens of political sites, both Republican and Democrat, were being inadvertently blocked by two filtering programs, N2H2 Bess and Cyber Patrol. The study was aimed at spotlighting the point that filtering technology is flawed. (Unrelated, but in case you wondered, Pollock's bid for a congressional district seat was unsuccessful.)
- 'Enabling the disabled'
Sometimes Web sites are now recognizing that they can do well by doing good. According to Wired News, Election.com found it could "increase revenue by millions of dollars a year" at little additional cost by accommodating people with disabilities. The site made made technology changes that support Web users with low or no vision and impaired hearing and manual dexterity (which keeps them from using a mouse). An example of one such change is putting in text descriptions of images, so that helpers who read to blind users, for example, can read the description to them. Wired News says estimates on the size of the disabled Internet population vary, but one statistic cited was that "between 4% and 17% of the online population have some kind of sight, hearing, cognitive, or physical impairment," which, on the conservative side, can amount to 6 million potential users in the US alone. (Later in the article, Wired clarified that "little additional cost" refers to new site construction; retrofitting an existing Web site is a lot more expensive.)
- E-toys for small digerati
Not a whole lot of surprises here, but here's a compendium of this year's most-in-demand e-toys and gadgets for multiple age levels from Wired News. You'll find familiar "friends" such as the scooter (manually operated or electrically powered), the PlayStation2, and robotic doggies. Less well-known is the voice-recognizing, password-protected phone and diary and the spy paraphernalia inspired by 007's old friend Q. Have any of your kids asked for these? Are you going to buy one of 'em? We'd love to hear your comments on this season's "electrifying" lineup.
- Quite the stocking stuffer
This one's more for the big kids (say, 12 and up?) - the musically minded ones. But buyer beware: The "Uproar" Net-connecting cell phone with a built-in MP3 player is both pricey and cutting edge. That news is both good and bad, of course. Good because some of us *need* to be cutting edge (that's what marketers to teens bank on), bad because cutting edge means prices will come down and quality will go up. This product will certainly grow with its technology to some degree, though: As soon as the site's ready, users will be able to stream music directly from Sprint PCS's "My Music" site - details at the New York Times.
- Advanced placement with the Net
The Web is becoming a great solution for students whose high schools can't afford to offer them advanced placement courses. According to the New York Times, state education systems and large school districts in at least six states are working on providing these college-level courses on the Web. Students and high schools in rural and low-income areas are the biggest beneficiaries of this type of distance learning.
- Fuel for classroom debate
The debate would be about whether Yahoo!'s auction site can host the sale of Nazi memorabilia to French citizens, since French law bars the sale of such in France. Besides the fact that it would be fun for debaters to work from the detached and slightly chauvinistic perspective of a British tech news provider, The Register, the writer does a great job of framing the issues. Should Yahoo! honor French law and, if so, how so? Is Yahoo! an accessory if a French citizen purchases illegal items via its auction? What's the role of the US's First Amendment in this situation? If any of you tackle this one at school or the dinner table, we'd love to hear how it goes!
- ZapMe! no longer free
Remember them? - the controversial company that offered schools free, advertising-supported computers and Net connections to schools? Well, ZapMe!'s equipment and services are no longer free. According to the New York Times, Plainfield High School in Connecticut, for example, had signed with ZapMe! for a free computer lab earlier this year (the school then spent $4,000 on preparing the room for the lab). Last week Plainfield got the bill. It was one of 15,000 schools across the US that have signed up for ZapMe!'s service. The company does say it's trying to find ways to keep the school network alive without forcing the schools to pay, the Times reports.
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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