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March 7, 2003

Dear Subscribers:

It was quite a week for the field of children's online safety - with a great deal of media in both Australia and the US. We hope we've made these developments somewhat digestible for you! Here's the lineup for this first week of March:

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Online kids' exposure to porn: 2 studies in 2 countries

Nearly simultaneously, two significant reports on children's exposure to online pornography have been released in the United States and Australia, the latter having kicked up considerable controversy in that country - maybe even intentionally.

  1. 'Youth and Pornography in Australia'

    Australia has gone further with federal legislation than the US, but even so this latest study by the Australia Institute, a public policy think tank, says the country's regulatory efforts on behalf of online kids are "manifestly failing." After surveying 16-to-17-year-olds (younger kids were not interviewed for ethical reasons, the researchers write), the study found that:

    • 84% of boys and 60% of girls have been exposed accidentally to porn on the Internet.
    • 88% of boys and 83% of girls "believe that looking at sex sites on the Internet is widespread" among boys of their peer group (7% of girls believe the practice is widespread among 16-17-year-old girls).
    • 38% of boys said they have searched the Internet for sex sites; 4% say they use the Net for this purpose on a weekly basis; 22% access sex sites "at least every two or three months."
    • 2% of girls said they have deliberately sought out sex sites.

    The report, which said its findings are "likely to understate the true incidence of pornography consumption among youth," provides explicit details on the types of sexual activity young Net users are being exposed to. It's clearly not for young people's consumption; the authors preface the report saying, "The debate on pornography in Australia needs well-informed citizens, and this includes the awareness of some of the more disturbing material that is freely available to children on the Internet."

    Since the study was released in February, the Institute has issued two short companion reports: "Parents' Attitudes to Regulation of Internet Pornography" (finding that 85% are concerned about teens' exposure, 60% "very concerned"; 93% want mandatory filtering, but see below for a comment on that) and "Regulating Youth Access to Pornography."

    The controversial part

    In the latter, the authors recommend requiring all of Australia's Internet service providers to filter all content (with an opt-out mechanism for adults which includes age verification technology); existing law requires ISPs to provide customers with filtering software when they request it. Other, less controversial, recommendations include 1) a nationwide high school Net education program to develop critical thinking concerning pornography, "ethical norms," and practical online protection skills; 2) "plain brown wrappers for pornographic Web sites" (no description provided); and 3) instant online help for kids who have been exposed to porn.

    The study stirred up copious media coverage in Australia (e.g., see these Google search results), including a report in that the federal government "will move to tighten control over the Internet to reduce the accessibility of hardcore pornography from personal computers." One of the options being considered, the piece said is "a central system to filter all local and overseas Internet traffic through a proxy server," as in Saudi Arabia (see also an Associated Press report on what China's doing in this regard). A Sydney Morning Herald piece about filtering as a flawed solution cited recent filter tests showing that Net Nanny 4.0 failed to block porn 38% of the time. "Other products on the [Australian Broadcasting Authority's] approved list were worse - Cyber Sentinel failed more than half of the time (53%)," the Morning Herald added. Melbourne's The Age quoted the online civil liberties organization Electronic Frontiers Australia as saying that what the study really shows is the overall failure of Australia's "Internet censorship laws."

    To editorialize a bit

    In one of its articles on the study this week, The Age cites critics as saying the study's sample of 100 boys and 100 girls wasn't representative. But whether or not 84% of Australia's 16-to-17-year-old boys have been exposed to online porn, the debate these figures sparked was good for raising public awareness (it's almost as if controversy was the study's main goal). It raises important questions, as do its critics. The researchers' recommendation of a nationwide school-based Net literacy education makes sense, but their recommendation of mandatory nationwide filtering surprises us, given filtering's flaws (not to mention the fact that this is a solution more repressive governments use). We do question the figure of 93% of parents supporting federal mandatory-filtering legislation, since filtering's downside was not discussed with the parents surveyed as far as we could tell from the short companion report on parents' attitudes. Many parents may not be aware yet that filtering is an imperfect technology. Certainly it is not in ISPs' best business interest to provide filtering, as the study argues, but when ISPs say the responsibility to protect children from porn on the Net ultimately lies with parents, they're right - at least at this stage of online-safety tech development. Filters can be a helpful addition for some families, but we propose that what the software does better than anything at this point is provide parents with a false sense of security.

  2. US study: 'The Exposure of Youth to Unwanted Sexual Material on the Internet'

    It's apples and oranges to compare the two reports' findings, as useful as they are for parents, policymakers, and children's advocates worldwide. While the AI study asked 16-to-17-year-old boys, for example, if they'd ever been exposed to Net porn and got the 84% response, this just-released study from the University of New Hampshire found that 25% of US 10-to-17-year-olds (boys and girls) had had "one or more unwanted exposures to sexual pictures while online in the past year" (the US study did call this "a considerable level of exposure"). In the US study there was a smaller gap between boys' and girls' unintended exposure: 57% vs. 42%, respectively (compared to 84% and 60% in Australia). Other key findings included:

    • 73% of those exposures happened while searching or surfing and 27% while opening email or clicking on links in emails or instant messages.
    • 67% happened while using the Net at home, 15% at school, 3% in libraries - the rest at other homes (such as friends') and elsewhere.
    • Most of the images were just of nudity; 32% showed the sex act; 7% involved violence as well as sex and nudity.
    • Web searches (with search engines or typing in a URL like were the most common route to exposures (47%).
    • In 26% of the surfing incidents, the kids surveyed were "mousetrapped" into another sex site while trying to get out of the one they were in.
    • 39% of the exposure incidents were reported to parents, 43% to no one.
    • Young people are more likely to have unwanted exposure if they use the Net a great deal, use it in other households, spend time in online chat, use the Net for email, talk to strangers online, play jokes on or harass people online, and are troubled or reported depression or physical or sexual abuse.

    As for parents' views, the US study's findings were closer to those of the Australian one (though the question was put a little differently), showing that 84% of American parents surveyed said "adults should be extremely concerned about youth being exposed to sexual material on the Internet." Interestingly, just 10% fewer (74%) of the US kids surveyed said they thought adults should be "very or extremely concerned" about this problem online kids have. Just 38% of US parents with home Net access have installed filtering software in the past year, though 5% have stopped using it.

    Exposing assumptions

    Besides the fresh data it offers, in our view, where the UNH report shines is in the assumptions and information gaps it spotlights. For example, the operating assumption in US policymaking so far has been that most of kids' exposure to online porn has been voluntary and contrary to parents' wishes, in other words that the problem is about parent-child conflict, an "intrafamilial tug-of-war," which focuses the debate on "that group of parents who wish to foil their children's sexual curiosity," the authors write. But we now know that kids' exposure is involuntary too. So, to find solutions, the authors suggest, we need to think about how we conceptualize the Internet as a content provider. Is the Internet more like a bookstore, where content is sought out, or like a TV whose content is intrusive? The authors say the Communications Decency Act, which was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 1997, was addressing the bookstore model. The opportunity now is to think about how to "help consumers and children avoid intrusive exposures they do not want as opposed to helping parents restrain children from exposures actively sought out," the authors write, adding there's "a very important difference" between the two in shaping public policy.

    The authors also suggest important areas for further research, pointing out that 1) "no research on children or adults exists about the impact of exposure that is unwanted or unexpected" and 2) "clearly, if families want to rely on filtering ... we need to know what the real world failure rate really is." The available data suggest that filtering has problems, they write. "Such problems may or may not be amenable to solution," is the study's inconclusive conclusion on filtering.

All that said, it's important to note that online porn is only one online-parenting challenge. It's even more important for us all to figure out how to deal with the sexual predation problem. Kids and parents need to be just as alert about what information goes out to the Net from family computers as about what's coming in from the Net.

Finally, international research isn't easy to do - getting representative samples of youth worldwide or even just in developed countries. But seeing these two reports released at the same time, both considering an issue of concern to parents everywhere, we can't help but hope researchers will begin to ask the same questions in their respective countries so that we can begin to compare apples to apples, to see patterns, and to work the problem together.

Your comments on this or any item in the newsletter are always welcome! Email us via

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Family Tech: Just for fun

Not every family dog is featured prominently in technology reports, but this week Shaggy was. Shaggy is a very "verbal" member of Larry Magid's family (of fame). She makes a cameo appearance in a 38 sec. radio report from Larry on "bow-lingual," the latest human-to-dog communications tech from Japan. Larry was in Tokyo this week speaking at a conference on children's use of mobile phones, and he always does tech reporting for radio wherever he goes. This is one of the other tech topics he ran into on this trip.

[Click on the link and, if you have an audio player on your PC, Larry's report will automatically start - if you don't, go to and download their free player (make sure it's the free one!).]

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Web News Briefs

  1. COPA struck down again

    The timing is interesting: The same week Australia was debating whether to tighten regulations against online porn, another of the US's attempts to regulate online kids' protection, COPA, was struck down - again. The federal appeals court in Philadelphia to which the Supreme Court sent the law back for a second ruling this week ruled the Child Online Protection Act unconstitutional. "The [Philadelphia] court said that in practice, the law made it too difficult for adults to view material protected by the First Amendment, including many non-pornographic sites," the Associated Press reports. CNET reports that the US Justice Department, which is defending the law, could appeal to the Supreme Court a second time. COPA, which was signed into law in 1998, is the US Congress's second attempt to restrict sexually explicit material on the Internet. The Supreme Court struck down the first such law, the Communications Decency Act, in 1997. There was action this week as well on Congress's third effort, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000, which shifted the onus away from Web publishers to users by requiring filtering in public places benefiting from federal connectivity (e-rate) funding. Please see just below for more.

  2. The library-filtering question

    The US Supreme Court heard arguments this week about whether public libraries should be required to have filtering on their Net-connected computers. The justices were considering the CIPA case, in which the Justice Department is appealing a federal court decision last year that the Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000 violates the First Amendment. "Justices will decide before July if Congress can require public libraries to install software to filter out pornography as a condition of receiving federal [e-rate] money," the Washington Post reports. The government argued that, since libraries don't have x-rated videos and magazines on their shelves, they shouldn't provide access to porn on their computers. The American Library Association argued "that with 11 million Web sites, it's impossible for filter operators to keep up with pornographic sites," the Post reports, adding that "more than 14 million people use public library computers to do research, send and receive e-mail, and, in some cases, log onto adult sites." Adding context, the Christian Science Monitor points out that this case - like those involving the fate of COPA (the Child Online Protection Act) and virtual child pornography - highlights US courts' struggle to find the right constitutional balance "in a society that seeks to protect its children from offensive, sexually explicit material while at the same time upholding core principles of free speech."

    Meanwhile, Oregon public libraries may have to block porn in any case. A bill requiring library filtering was recently introduced in the state's Senate, The Oregonian reports. Our thanks to BNA Internet Law for pointing this article out.

  3. University student disciplined for spamming

    The Associated Press report suggests the case is unusual, but we suspect the only thing unusual is that the student was caught and disciplined. According to the AP, a Tufts University student was accepting $20 a month for sending out spam (unsolicited junk email) for an unidentified spam company. He was disciplined (probably by temporarily losing access to the university network, AP says) for using the school's network for this purpose. "Spammers have to keep changing their routes to get messages into personal email inboxes, as computer users and email providers keep adding new filters to block e-mails from unwanted addresses," the AP reports.

  4. Singapore to create 'Cyber Wellness Task Force'

    CNN's lead is a bit sarcastic, but Singapore's plans to promote well-being in cyberspace may turn out to be a prototype for other countries. "The Cyber Wellness Task Force will urge people not to send unsolicited e-mails or spam, not to view pornographic Web sites, and to use their real name, not a pseudonym, in chat rooms," CNN reports. The Internet education effort will include a media campaign, public workshops and special Web sites aimed at parents and children, CNN adds.

  5. US government seizes piracy site

    In an effort to send the message that piracy is not a game or hobby, the US government seized a Web site "dedicated to copyright infringement" called, the Washington Post reports. It was the first time the government has taken a domain name in a criminal piracy case, according to the Post. The site, run by 22-year-old David M. Rocci of Blacksburg, Va., reportedly had 100,000 regular users and received more than 140,000 hits a day. The government acquired the site in a plea agreement when Rocci pleaded guilty in December "to one count of conspiracy to violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by trafficking in devices known as modification, or 'mod,' chips," the Post reports, adding: "Those are computer chips used to circumvent copyright protections in such game systems at Playstation2 and XBox, allowing users to illegally play pirated sports, racing and other games on their televisions."

  6. Indiana girl's big chat mistake

    Looking for anonymous romance in Internet chat, a 17-year-old in Indiana last month helped a man she "met" in a chat room fake her kidnapping so that he could extort $200 from her parents. According to the Indianapolis Star, she snuck out of her house late one evening, and the next day her parents reported her missing. Later in the day they received an email message demanding $200 ransom. On their way to meeting the man with a check, they contacted the police, then picked up their daughter. The man was later arrested and charged with theft and deception. The girl was charged as a runaway. When police later interviewed the girl, she told them "she took part in the plan because she feared being punished by her parents," the Star reports. The police involved in the case told the Star that these types kinds of cases seem to be on the rise.

  7. School laptops: Maine program thrives

    After just six months in the works, positive reactions to Maine's statewide school laptop program (the first of its kind) appear to have surpassed the flak it first raised. The New York Times reports that attendance is up, detentions are down, "educators are impressed by how quickly students and teachers have adapted to laptop technology," and "students, teachers and parents [at all 239 middle schools where Maine's 7th-graders got laptops] say they are finding unexpected benefits" (see the article for examples). The laptops go home with the students at night, but problems such as breakage, theft, and loss have been minimal. "Laptops will follow their users to eighth grade next year, while seventh graders will get new iBooks, for a total of 33,000. When students leave the eighth grade, they will turn them in," the Times reports, adding that educators do worry about how 9th-graders will feel when they're told to surrender their iBooks.

  8. New online Alexandria Library

    The old Alexandria Library claimed to have every known manuscript in the ancient world, but it is believed to have gone up in flames more than 1,000 years ago. The new one, also in Alexandria, Egypt - "which christened a steel and glass structure with 250,000 books in October," the New York Times reports - is just as ambitious as its predecessor. It aims to "make virtually all of the world's books available at a mouse click," connecting scholars and students around the world. Though many libraries and digital archives provide access to books online, the Alexandria Library plans to employ special software to make digitized books more accessible than ever - especially to developing countries, "where libraries are often nonexistent and access to materials is hard to come by," the Times adds. Do see the article to find out how some remarkable partnerships will help the Alexandria Library toward its goal.

  9. Yahoo takes its time

    The world's largest online chat service provider so far is not following the British government's voluntary guidelines for such companies on how to protect children in online chat - even though it sat on the committee that came up with those guidelines. "Yahoo has admitted that it has not yet implemented the guidelines and has set no timeframe to do so," the BBC reports. Online chat rooms can be risky for kids because they can't know who they're chatting with - whether a peer or a middle-aged pedophile, and that anonymity can create a false sense of security for participants unaware of the risks. "In the UK, there have been at least 12 cases of youngsters being physically attacked by men they originally met in chat rooms," the BBC reports. Our thanks to the EU's Safer Internet Newsletter for pointing this article out.

  10. High-speed access on a school bus

    There's a 20-year-old school bus on the Isle of Man that's taking computer and Net training to every school on the island, the BBC reports. Infotech teacher Alex Townsend uses his 3G mobile phone to create a wireless, broadband connection between the bus's 21 Power Macs and the Internet. The BBC explains that Townsend's phone is "plugged into a laptop that acts as a server for other machines on board," in an arrangement that illustrates the potential for the next-generation 3G technology cell-phone companies are touting, "fusing the Internet with mobile communications."

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News


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