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Don't miss the hard-earned wisdom of a 14-year-old subscriber below (just after "Family Tech"). Here's our lineup for these first days of August:

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Family Tech: Update on image file-sharing & porn

Two US lawmakers last Friday brought to national attention the new online-safety challenge we've all been discussing in the newsletter these past few weeks (thanks for your emails!): the file-sharing of porn images across the Net.

To alert parents, Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) and Steve Largent (R-OK) last Friday released a report by a House committee which found that Napster-like file-sharing software gives children "easy and free access to thousands of explicit pornographic videos and other pornographic materials." The congressmen wanted parents to know that kids can accidentally stumble on this content when looking for something else, say, a music file. In its story on the report, Wired News cited the example of a child searching for music videos by Britney Spears and getting sexually explicit files labeled "Britney Spears." "When the Special Investigations Division [of the House Committee on Government Reform] used the popular file-sharing program Aimster to search for videos of Britney Spears, over 70% of the results were pornographic files," the report states.

The full report can be downloaded in PDF format at The page includes the lawmakers' "Parental Tips for Internet File-Sharing Programs" compiled by Reps. Waxman and Largent. The congressmen aren't yet calling for legislation, Wired reports, "but want parents to be aware of the programs and realize that most Internet filtering software doesn't stop them." Here's CNN's coverage.

Further counter-measures: Reps. Waxman and Largent's tips say "don't rely on filters." Their basic message is right on the mark for parents who think technology alone protects children. But technology can be helpful. In our July 13 feature on file-sharing, we mention some tech aids. In addition to those, we know of a filter that can help somewhat: Because it detects sexually explicit text that appears in any application on a computer (email, Web browser, IM, word-processing, etc.), "Cyber Sentinel" will also detect such language in the descriptions or labels that come with any file (image, music, video, etc.) that a child might download with Morpheus, BearShare, Napster, or any other file-sharing program. Unfortunately, it cannot help in cases like the Britney Spears one above, when the labels don't distinguish between a music video and a porn video. To stop all new installations of software they haven't approved, parents can take the fairly extreme measure of using "Lockdown" by the same company, Security Software Systems. Both these products are only for Windows PCs.

Ads coming, of course: Needless to say, along with the growing popularity of file-sharing comes online advertising and its accompanying privacy-invading technologies. CNET takes a look at what the creators of a number of file-sharing programs are thinking about - e.g., "spyware," "TopText," "Smart Tags," and "QuickClicks." This thorough piece also names a number of file-sharing software programs that kids might want to download.

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Teen subscriber writes: Parental Controls, instant-messaging

Subscriber Ashley in Florida emailed us this week about her own tough experiences online and the solutions she and her mother have arrived at. Her advice to peers and parents is well worth considering:

"Hello, as a 14-year-old, I am sure that I am one of your youngest newsletter subscribers, and I would just like to commend you all (the newsletter staff), a VERY GOOD job well DONE! Thank you! I was recently threatened to be 'killed' at my very own home, and this terrible act would all be done during the night, that very night I got the Instant Message. Even though it never happened, I was terribly afraid for days. My mother subscribed me to your awesome newsletter, and I am now very comforted.

"Also, I would like to send this message of caution to all parents who are out there, and whose children (child), are on-line, and whose children have access to Instant Messages. Although it is a GREAT tool for well-known friends and family who have the Internet, it is also a great tool for criminals and sex offenders and porn-fascinated people out there.

"NEVER answer to a person's screen name you do not recognize. Ignore them immediately, and don't even say, 'Go away!' or some phrase like that. Also, [America Online's] Parental Controls do a great deal of help too. I once had General Access, (which is suggested for ages 18 and up). Porn people would send me the most sickening things ever imaginable. Actually, no words can explain how mad I was just after about 10 emails. I ran to my mother, and begged her to change my Parental Controls to 'Young Teen' (suggested ages is 12-15). Thank you for listening to my advice and letting me share it with all of your newsletter subscribers. Thanks a Whole Lot!!!!!"

[For another teenage girl's (and mother's) experience with instant-messaging, see "Lessons of a tech-literate family" in our 7/20 issue, and for the latest stats on the online life of teens worldwide, see our 6/29 issue.]

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Web News Briefs

  1. Bills aimed at sex predators, hackers

    The US Congress lately has been busy trying to protect online kids from sexual predators. According to, the "Anti-Sexual Predator Act of 2001," by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Charles Schumer (D-NY), was the fourth such bill to be introduced last week. It's designed to give investigators "much-needed" tools to track predators and child pornographers." The bill join[ed] two others offered ... by freshman Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL) in reaction to a case involving a teenager in his district who was lured to Greece by a man who made contact with the girl online," the Post reports (here's a full Post story on this case). Another bill from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) "sets up mandatory five-year prison terms and fines for using the Internet to sexually victimize children" (here's the piece specifically on this).

    In other Net-related activity on Capitol Hill, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) has introduced a bill that would put hackers who disrupt school computers in prison, according to Wired News. The problem is, its wording is so general that it would punish "activities that affect a computer rather than ones that damage it or successfully penetrate its security," reports Wired, adding that the bill covers any school computer system, not just Web sites, and could criminalize mere pranks. also reported on the FBI's arrest of a high-profile sexual predator: Mayor Philip Giordano of Waterbury, Conn. He was arrested "on charges that he used an 'interstate facility' to have sex with a minor. The FBI defines an 'interstate facility' as a computer or Internet service provider (ISP)."

  2. Small-town online life

    This Pew Internet-use study was unique. It took an in-depth, detailed look at one week of the online life of 25 families in Ashley Woods, N.C. (pop. 6,000) - showing how the Net affects people's health, relationships, professional lives, passions (antiques, Harry Potter, religion, sports, Wall Street), and purchases (prom dress, custom drapes, beef jerky, concert tickets, dog food, furnace filters). "The findings are not statistically representative of the USA as a whole," says the Pew Internet & American Life press release, "but they provide a snapshot of how the Internet has made its way into the everyday lives of everyday Americans." The 25 families included Net users of all ages, who spent nearly 24,000 minutes online (an average of 52 minutes/person) during the week last January when the study was conducted. Each family was assigned a student at nearby Elon University, who compiled data they gathered from detailed diaries family members kept. The Pew press release includes links (at the bottom) to profiles of several of the families in

  3. Case against CIPA will be heard

    The US Justice Department tried to get a high-profile lawsuit challenging the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) dismissed, but a federal court has ruled that the case deserves to be heard. According to, the case - filed by the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other civil liberties organizations - will go to trial next February. CIPA requires all libraries that receive federal e-rate (Internet connectivity) funding to install online-safety technology. The US District Court in Philadelphia which made this latest ruling is the same court that ruled against the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA) on constitutional grounds. Search for "CDA" and "COPA" on this page to learn more about those bills.

  4. Help with the V-Chip

    While we wait for the TV industry to do a better job of educating the public about the V-chip, schools, churches, and communities now have a resource to help educate parents about this tool. Produced by the Center for Media Education, the resource is called "Parental Guidance Suggested: A Workshop Guide for the TV Ratings and V-Chip." It can be downloaded for free in PDF format right on CME's home page (the grey-and-white logo). Although 40% of US parents have a TV with a V-Chip, only 17% actually use the V-Chip to block programs with sexual or violent content, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found. CME's press release explains basically how the V-Chip works. Here's the Associated Press's story on V-Chip use (via MSNBC).

  5. A mom & the US Supreme Court

    The case is really about whether or not Internet service providers are like the phone companies and not responsible for the content they host. Lower courts have already given ISPs immunity for the stuff people put on their servers, but "the mother of a boy whose nude images were sold through an AOL chat room" is taking her case, "Jane Doe v. AOL," to the Supreme Court, Wired News reports. The case originated in 1994, and in 1996 the pedophile responsible for those images and their sale was convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Wired News has the details.

  6. Cheap Net service

    It may not be free, but these days it seems a bold move that Kmart/ is making: offering unlimited Net access for $8.95/mo. And there is a way to make it free, according to Reuters (via shop at

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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