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April 9, 2004

Dear Subscribers:

Next week the newsletter will be on spring break. The next issue will arrive in your in-box Friday, April 23. Here's our lineup for this first full week of April:

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Kidsnet and Netopia: Fresh tech options for parents

For parents looking for tech tools to help keep kids' Net use constructive, two new services are worth your attention: Netopia for broadband users and Kidsnet for anybody (with a Windows PC). We interviewed executives at both companies and liked what we heard. [We do not have the resources to test these resources, so we publish these product alerts because of: 1) what we know of family online-safety needs and 2) what we like about the companies' claims and product features.]

Both Kidsnet and Netopia seem pleasantly focused on two key things for families: ease of use and flexibility. Both offer multiple accounts per family - Kidsnet six, Netopia "seven or eight." Both provide remote access, so Mom or Dad can change settings or check in on latchkey Net surfers from work or the road. Kidsnet launched about a year ago, Netopia right around now!

Each is agnostic in its own way. Kidsnet isn't connection speed-specific - dialup or broadband are both fine. Netopia is "agnostic for the desktop." Its technology "lives" in your router and on its own servers, so it works with any box in the house connected to that router - PCs, Macs, even game consoles using Xbox and PlayStation 2 Internet service for gamers (interestingly, the New York Times just reported that Microsoft is increasingly blurring the line between the PC and the game console).

Both services also have huge databases of - remarkably - human-reviewed Web sites (properly trained humans still do a much better job at making judgment calls on child-appropriate content than technology does).

After buying Nielsen/NetRatings's list of sites representing about 98% of all Web traffic, Kidsnet spent about five years training reviewers and categorizing those sites using the Internet Content Rating Association's ('s) labeling criteria for violence, drugs, sex, hate, etc. Kidsnet claims now to have a database of 175 million Web pages (2.5 times the size of Yahoo's directory, when they last checked). What we like about Kidsnet's approach - besides the humans behind it up front and ongoing (free semi-annual updates) - is that it offers parents full disclosure of criteria the company uses for blocking sites (unusual in this business) and allows parents to customize by adding and deleting sites. Plus, if a child runs across a site not found in the database, it will be human-reviewed and added to Kidsnet's white list or black list, as appropriate, so the database also grows in a customer-driven way. Another plus for Kidsnet is the kid search engine it put on top of this database - No child searching with Hazoo, whether or not s/he's a Kidsnet customer, can stumble upon porn (artistic nudity, yes, if s/he's not a customer or if Mom or Dad chose not to block artistic nudity).

Netopia uses filtering company Secure Computing's database of "5 million to 10 million" Web sites. That includes the white and black lists of one of the largest and oldest school filtering companies, N2H2, which Secure Computer acquired last fall. Netopia claims a "team of multi-lingual Web analysts looking at thousands of Web sites everyday" (multi-lingual is not something you hear every day - a plus for Netopia - and Spanish, German, and French versions are in the works, we're told). Filtering criteria aren't disclosed, but parents can override them and create their own white or black lists for individual "accounts," or children.

Then there's the all-important kid-communications piece of the puzzle: IM, email, chat, etc. Netopia shines in this area. With chat, instant-messaging, and email, it allows you to block or allow all activity or "create a walled garden" for the child. They say that, with the walled garden turned on, your child sees, for example, a different Eudora or Outlook in-box than yours - one with emails only from the approved list of email addresses or screen names. They also claim to capture conversations, so parents can monitor IM or chat (AIM, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ and eventually VoIP/Net-based phone calls) from work. When we asked, they weren't sure about Internet Relay Chat, which a lot of kids use.

Right now, Kidsnet simply allows parents to turn IM, chat, email, and file-sharing on or off. In development: "our own safe IM and chat" that "will work with AOL, AIM, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, and IRC." When turned on, it will "prevent kids from installing any other IM package." In a month, Kidsnet will also include a firewall, we were told.

Though PC Magazine likes Cybersitter best of the online-safety products it reviewed, it also liked Kidsnet (Netopia wasn't out yet). And Cybersitter doesn't have the flexibility that both these services have. You can only turn Cybersitter on or off (for all the kids at your house), which made us wonder if the PC Magazine reviewer is a parent!

Cost: Kidsnet $40/year, Netopia hadn't finalized it at this writing, but gave a ballpark $36-60/year.

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Other new products in this space

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Web News Briefs

  1. Gmail: Tip of a monster iceberg?

    Google's announcement of Gmail brought quite a little thunderstorm down on it. Even before its new Web-based email system's available, consumer privacy groups in the US and UK registered concerns, as pointed out by CNET, the Washington Post, and the BBC (Wired News had the snowball-effect story yesterday, reporting on an open letter from 28 privacy and civil liberties organizations to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page). The New York Times stepped back to survey the whole scene, including Google's response to the privacy protests: "Gmail will hew to the company's privacy policy, under which Google will not disclose personal information to third parties unless required to do so by law," and - if people are concerned about funeral-home ads in emails about a loss in the family - only software, not people, is matching email content to advertising (suggesting no invasion of privacy). Some users are salivating over Gmail's promised high-capacity, free storage and Google-style email searching capability, others will worry about how much Google knows about them. Google's "Gmail" moniker has also hit a trademark snag, CNET later reported.

    All that said, people who are watching Google's technology say the concerns and even the Gmail announcement are a mere distraction that Google doesn't mind a bit. They're diverting attention away from a monster Google game plan that may even get Microsoft detractors talking about a Google monopoly in a few years. To wit, this from Web designer Jason Kottke's blog: "Email, shopping, games, music, news, personal publishing, etc.; all the stuff that people use their computers for, it's all there," on Google's colossal "distributed" operating system on the Web - no one will need Microsoft Windows on their own PCs anymore, he predicts.

    Google folk, Jason adds, "have this huge map of the Web and are aware of how people move around in the virtual space it represents. They have the perfect place to store this map (one of the world's largest computers that's all but incapable of crashing). And they are clever at reading this map. Google knows what people write about, what they search for, what they shop for, they know who wants to advertise and how effective those advertisements are, and they're about to know how we communicate with friends and loved ones. What can they do with all that? Just about anything that collection of PhDs can dream up." A little scary and quite fascinating, considering the implications on a global scale.

  2. Gaming on steroids

    It's called Final Fantasy XI, and it's a massively multiplayer (Net-based) game with no killing and lots of collaboration. Its virtual cities are so vast you can't navigate without asking directions, and "after the first few hours of leveling up, expanding your horizons becomes nearly impossible without a party of friends to help you. So right off the bat, you're encouraged to make friends," Wired News reports. "You" being each player's character or avatar in that virtual environment. Writer Chris Kohler explored the game as a newbie, a console player "fresh off the PS2 boat." (Final Fantasy has for years been a console game - its arrival on the Internet, with potentially millions of players making up the game together, is what's new, and quite radical, here.) Chris gives parents (and kids) a feel for what it's like to migrate from the console game playing to the vast Internet, using a PC (how long it takes just to install the software, register, and create your character - eternity to a plug 'n' play console gamer). He's also a great writer!

  3. Copyright respect: 'Onus on parents'

    Parents are responsible for teaching children respect for copyrighted music, movies, and software, according to a survey sponsored by the Business Software Alliance. The software company trade association certainly has a vested interest in the survey's findings, but they're interesting nevertheless. The survey, of "a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults, ages 18 and older," found that...

    • 78% said parents bear the most responsibility for "teaching the nation's youth to respect copyrighted material."
    • 14% said the responsibility is shared by parents and teachers.
    • 95% said "it is a 'big deal' if a young person shoplifts a software program, CD, or DVD from a store," while 30% said "downloading files on the Internet without permission is acceptable."
    • 63% said it is "never okay to download copyrighted works ... without authorization."
    • 34% of men and 27% of women surveyed said that downloading with permission is acceptable.

  4. Apple patch

    We don't see many of these - security patches for Apples users (Panther and Jaguar versions of OSX). Patches are usually a Windows phenomenon that's becoming habit (we hope, people!). The updates "fix security issues in the operating systems' printing, mail and encryption capabilities, as well as a critical vulnerability in the handling of Web addresses," CNET reports. Why heed them? "The most critical vulnerabilities," CNET adds, "could allow an attacker to execute code on a victim's computer by sending a [Web] long address" or URL. Never hurts to patch!

  5. Latest phishing (e-scam) tactics

    Really watch out for emails that try to look official (like from a bank or PayPal) but have about middle-school level grammar or spelling. And don't click on any links in these emails; you could be downloading malicious software just by clicking. Even though these emails may carry official company logos (easily cut 'n' pasted from the real corporate site), they're probably scams, also called "phishing" attacks or cons. "Security experts said users should be suspicious of any email that asks them to verify confidential information," the BBC reports.

  6. Spammer arrests

    Anti-spam laws seem to be kicking in - slowly. This case involves a Virginia state law: A woman there has been charged with four felony counts of using fraudulent means to send illegal spam, the Associated Press reports. She, her brother, and an associated spammer in North Carolina (both arrested earlier) all face up to 20 years in prison. "Northern Virginia is a major hub for Internet traffic," according to the AP, so anti-spam enforcement there is potentially influential in easing the spam problem.

    Meanwhile, in Europe, the EU recently ordered eight nations to adopt privacy laws governing spam and Internet cookies, the Associated Press reports. "It was the second warning sent to the countries, which have two months to comply or face lawsuits before the European Court of Justice." Sweden enacted legislation following the first warning, but Belgium, Germany, Greece, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Finland have yet to do so.

  7. US's 'most unwired' places

    "Hotspots" used to refer more to nightclubs. But more and more, it means wireless, or wi-fi, Internet access. In Bryant Park in Manhattan or at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, for example, you can sit down on a bench, open your wireless-card-equipped laptop, and be online. At lots of Starbucks cafes in the US and UK, you can do the same, but it'll cost a bit. This week Intel unveils its lists of America's most unwired cities, university campuses, and airports (the lists, in pdf format, can be clicked to from the right-hand column of the press release).

  8. Google, Yahoo nix gambling ads

    It's illegal to run an online casino in the US. So, citing "a lack of clarity" in US regulations, Yahoo and Google announced they would stop carrying online casino ads on their Web sites, The Register reports. "US prosecutors last month warned companies that running ads for offshore online casinos was equivalent to 'aiding and abetting'."

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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