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July 15, 2005
It's good to be back from summer break! Lots of kid-tech news broke over the past two weeks, so I'm sure you'll find that just news briefs will be plenty this week:
Web News Briefs
For our latest feature, click here.
- July 9-15: Phone use, driving don't mix; Grand Theft Auto, X-rated version; Legal P2P option; Get the new patches!; Firefox & Mac updates; Toward better content rating; Blogging's risks; 'Web-proofing your kids'; P2P software downloads unabated; What ID thieves actually do; Teen worm writer convicted; High school ditches textbooks
- July 2-8: Disney's family phone plan; Mobile porn; Do-not-email-kids registries; More Net on mobiles; Kids' cellphone costs; Tech teachers: Help kids compete; ID theft's upside?; More LAN party locations; Library access; P2P & media firms' eyes on Sweden
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Web News Briefs
- Phone use & driving don't mix
This story was headlined everywhere this morning, but the teenagers in our lives need to hear it too: Drivers are four times more likely to crash when talking on cellphones. That's "four times as likely to get into a crash that can cause injuries serious enough to send them to the hospital," the Associated Press reports, and it includes drivers using headsets, talking hands-free, the BBC reports. The findings were in a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety published in the British Medical Journal. Some California legislators are proposing banning mobile phone use by young "provisional drivers," the Los Angeles Times reports, leading with the story of a 17-year-old who died in a crash caused by speeding while talking on the phone (she also was not wearing a seatbelt). "Legislators in California and a growing number of other states say something has to be done to curtail such tragedies," according to the Times. "The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the number of US motor-vehicle fatalities involving 16-to-20-year-olds rose to 7,405 last year, up from 7,353 the previous year."
- Grand Theft Auto's x-rated content?
I put a question mark by that headline, because there's a discussion in the tech media about whether the sexually explicit material was in the "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" videogame to begin with (and "unlocked" with a "modder's" code that's circulating around the Net) or created by the modder. In any case, the US's game ratings body, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, is looking into whether it should change its "M" (17+) rating of the game to "AO" for Adults Only.
A Dutch fan of the game, Patrick Wildenborg, "unlocked mini-games in the PC version of San Andreas that allows players to make game characters perform sexually explicit acts," the BBC reports. The Boston Globe explains that Wildenborg is a "modder," a gamer who uses software tools to modify the look and feel of his favorite games." Gamemakers like modders because they tend to increase games' popularity and shelf life and often add tools to the games which make it easier to create modifications. "Inevitably," according to the Globe, "some modders have reprogrammed popular games to add explicit sexual content. The popular game The Sims has inspired some steamy mods.... But 'Hot Coffee,' an eye-popping [Grand Theft Auto] mod created by Wildenborg and some of his friends, goes a good deal further, with highly explicit images." Wildenborg claims that a million people have downloaded "Hot Coffee" since it was posted on the Internet a month ago. Here's the New York Times on this, and the latest from CNET. [Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is No. 2 on the latest "10 worst videogames" list - see my 11/26/04 issue.]
- Legal P2P option
Have your kids installed this software yet? Maybe if they're music fans. The Los Angeles Times describes two programs, Indy and iRate radio, which are like the music version of the PointCast-style "push" technology of the '90s and could be huge for garage bands. What's improved since that ancient "dark age" is faster Net connections and "more powerful technology for tailoring programs to the audience." How it works: The software downloads to your computer "a number of songs that artists have agreed to distribute for free online. Each time the programs run, they download more songs for users to play and rate on a scale from one to five stars." The really interesting part is "collaborative filtering," which is more about humans than technology but uses both. "The ratings help the software match each user to others who have parallel likes and dislikes. Once a match has been made, the software sends people songs that others with similar tastes have rated highly." Indy is a noncommercial project whose goal is not to compete with, say, iTunes, but to help people discover new music. The software "is like a radio that takes no requests." Check out the L.A. Times article to see what that means. [Tip for parents: Ask your kid(s) if the computer can handle all the music being downloaded. Maybe they'd like to try this instead of file-sharing? It's more reliably legal.]
- Get the new patches!
If you haven't yet upgraded the family PC to Microsoft Update - which patches Windows and other Microsoft software automatically - go to Update.Microsoft.com to get the two critical patches all family PC owners need. They fix two security flaws that are already being actively exploited by malicious hackers hijacking people's computers, CNET reports. They're using the flaws to download Trojan software onto computers that they can then control. The hackers add these infected PCs to "zombie networks" that they use to make money or launch denial-of-service attacks on large Web sites such as governments'. A separate CNET report has numbers showing that computer hijacking's way up so far this year. Here are Microsoft's instructions on how to turn on automatic security updates. For further help, see my "Fending of zombie-dom" and "What if our PC's a zombie?".
- Important Firefox and Mac updates
Anyone who has a Mac or uses the Firefox Web browser should get the latest updates available for both, the Washington Post's security blog reports. Writer Brian Krebs says the Firefox update fixes "at least a dozen serious flaws," and the update for Macs is "huge," including iTunes, iPhoto, iPod, and Mac OSX improvements "detailed in several pages worth of documented changes that I won't begin to list." Brian does detail how to get the updates.
- Toward better content rating
The Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) has a new system that makes it more convenient for Web publishers to indicate whether or not their sites are appropriate for children, VNUNET reports. Using technology developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, the system allows, for example, "clearer differentiation between medical and pornography sites and includes shortcuts to generate labels for pornography and gambling sites." The development is good for online families because 1) more Web sites are likely to be labeled (so, for example, porn can be detected and blocked by filters), 2) new parts of the Internet (such as blogs and RSS feeds) will be covered, and 3) the RDF technology in ICRA's system takes content rating into the future - it "forms a significant part of the Semantic Web being developed by [Web creator] Tim Berners-Lee." [RDF stands for "Resource Description Framework".] Here's ICRA's press release and more at UK.Builder.com.
- Blogging's risks
High school and college yearbooks would be cherished and/or laughed over for a few weeks or months, then be revisited occasionally years later, but mainly just gathered dust in some basement or attic. They allowed us all to move on and mature. Blogs and Web sites where similarly personal thoughts are entered and expanded on, on the other hand, might be archived and available to anyone googling our names for years to come. On the Web, personal thoughts take on a life of their own that, usually, we can no longer control. These publicized personal thoughts can affect children's academic and professional careers, not to mention their parents'. Take for example Maya Marcel-Keyes, daughter of conservative politician Alan Keyes, who at 19 "discovered the trickiness of providing personal details online when her discussions on her blog about being a lesbian became an issue during her father's recent run for a US Senate seat in Illinois (he made anti-gay statements during the campaign)," the Associated Press reports. Nearly a fifth of teens with Net access have their own blogs; "38% of teens say they read other people's blogs"; and "79% of teens agreed that people their age aren't careful enough when giving out information about themselves online," the AP cites Pew Internet & American Life research as finding. Probably, more and more will use blogging services' privacy features like LiveJournal.com's "friends lock" so the public at large can't get to their innermost thoughts! But meanwhile, until their inner "risk analyst" chimes in (with post-teen frontal lobe development), their parents can promote those privacy features (the AP cites one uncle who heard his niece, a college student, was looking for a job; after googling her and finding her blog, "The Drunken Musings of...," he wrote her to suggest she take it down).
- 'Web-proofing your kids'
I wished I had the numbers in front of me when CBS tech correspondent and SafeKids.com publisher Larry Magid interviewed me about a University of New Hampshire study on online exploitation of kids, but here's the piece with the numbers. And here's Larry's CBSNews.com article on smart parenting of online kids during the summer, when they have a lot more time on their hands. Parents of younger teens especially would benefit from some key misconceptions about "stranger danger" that the UNH Crimes Against Children Research Center clears up in this study (if you read nothing else, see just the first paragraph of "Net-related crimes against kids"). This was a survey of law-enforcement agencies nationwide. The Center will be issuing its second milestone survey of online kids themselves, "Youth Internet Safety Survey," in a few months, Janis Wolak, one of its authors, tells me. The first, quoted globally to have found that one in five online kids in the US had been sexually solicited online, was published in June 2000. It'll be very interesting to see what in the online experiences of tweens and teens has changed.
- P2P software downloads unabated
Downloads of the noncommercial, open-source variety, at least. "Millions of people a week [emphasis mine] are downloading and using those independent [file-sharing] programs" like Azureus (a BitTorrent application that also runs on Macs) and Shareaza, reports CNET in an article today that surveys the scene since the US Supreme Court's MGM V. Grokster decision last month. "Azureus has been downloaded more than 78 million times, and more than 2.4 million times in the last week alone," CNET says. Meanwhile, commercial providers like LimeWire and MetaMachine (which markets eDonkey) are taking a hard look at their businesses.
- What ID thieves actually do
USATODAY spent five months piecing together the process of how ID thieves exploit people's personal info online and off - how they recruit online "mules" to help them actually put those stolen identities, account numbers, etc. to use. "Mules serve two main functions," USATODAY reports: "They help keep goods flowing through a tightly run distribution system [by receiving gadgets and other products purchased with stolen credit card numbers and resending them overseas], and they insulate their employers from police detection." The article, which starts with the story of a one-time mule in California with the pseudonym of Karl, adds that last year "reshipping rings set up nearly 44,000 post office boxes and residential addresses in the USA as package-handling points, up from 5,000 in 2003. And they show no signs of slowing down." Here's a San Jose Mercury News column on recent congressional efforts to deal with ID theft and "Don't Let Data Theft Happen to You" in the New York Times. Further info and resources: the Washington Post on AOL's new data-protection services for subscribers; "Be a fierce guardian of your personal data" and the story of one who is; the FTC's Identity Theft Clearinghouse; and OnlineCreditReport.com. Be sure to enlist your online kids' help in protecting information on the family computer, including together making sure that nothing but media files are being shared if there are file-sharers at your house (see "File-sharing realities for families").
- Teen worm writer convicted
The teenage writer of the 2004 Sasser worm has been found guilty by a German court but given a suspended sentence because he was (barely) a minor when he wrote it, VNUNET reports. Sven Jaschan "was caught following a tip-off to police after Microsoft offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the worm's creator." He testified that he'd intended to "create a virus that would combat the Mydoom and Bagle viruses and remove them from infected computers. This led him to develop the Netsky virus further, and to modify it to create Sasser." The worm accounted for 70% of all PC infections during the first half of 2004, according to VNUNET. New York Times columnist John Tierney muses about what Sven's sentence really should have been - e.g., make him "spend 16 hours a day fielding help-desk inquiries in an AOL chat room for computer novices. Force him to do this with a user name at least as uncool as KoolDude and to work on a vintage IBM PC with a 2400-baud dial-up connection." ;-)
- High school ditches textbooks
Though in eliminating textbooks from its classrooms, the Vail, Ariz., high school's goal isn't to teach students that all the information they need is online or at least on computers. Instead, the district's superintendent says, the move "gets teachers away from the habit of simply marching through a textbook each year," the Associated Press reports. Vail High School will be "the state's first all-wireless, all-laptop public school this fall."
- Disney's family phone plan
Disney is out to capture the family cellphone market with its very own wireless service, Disney Mobile, the Wall Street Journal reports (as well as sports fans with ESPN Wireless). This is not a kids' phone like the Firefly (see the San Jose Mercury News), but a kid-targeted phone service. Yes, Verizon, Sprint, etc. have family phone-add-on plans, but Disney (using Sprint's network) plans the first service to appeal to children (who just might try to influence Mom or Dad's choice of carrier). It will appeal to parents with "features specifically designed ... to ensure the safety of their kids and to keep in contact with them," but Disney wouldn't elaborate, the Journal reports. Certainly it will include Disney content. For kids in Europe more interested in art, there's Etch-a-Sketch on your mobile (no, you can't erase by shaking the phone), if you use Orange's service, the Washington Post reports. For info on phone parental controls, see my 5/6/05 and 5/7/04 issues.
- Mobile porn
It's all about privacy, Newsweek's sources say. Making pornography portable (as in magazines maybe?!) is an easy way for a publisher or a device maker to expand its market because viewers like their privacy. "For the past 30 years, each of erotica's new formats - theater, VCR, PC, laptop - has proven more private than the last. And what's a pocket multiplex, say its proponents, if not the ultimate in privacy?" So, some parents will feel, it's a good thing Sony's PlayStation Portable has parental controls on it, since Japanese adult-DVD makers H.M.P. and GLAY'z just joined Playboy on the PSP. They're releasing "eight of their top-selling hardcore titles on Sony's Universal Media Discs - the 2-1/2-inch, plastic-encased 'DVDs' designed for exclusive use with [Sony's] hot new PlayStation Portable device. But that's not the only mobile-porn platform, Newsweek adds. "Some mobile porn is almost mainstream already. The most popular category in podcasting - downloadable digital audio - is erotic instruction and entertainment." Newsweek cites a recent study by Boston-based Strategy Analytics showing that pornographic cellphone content "raked in $400 million worldwide last year and could reach $5 billion by 2010. Vivid Entertainment Group, the world's largest adult-film 'studio,' already peddles cellular-phone erotica in 20 countries - and it's targeting the PSP next."
- Do-not-email-kids registries
Parents in Michigan and Utah will soon be able to put their children's email addresses on the two states' new do-not-email lists. "Send a raunchy email to a minor, and you may wind up in jail" is the gist of the states' new laws creating the registries, CNET reports. "Anyone who goes ahead and sends email deemed to be off-color or 'harmful to minors' could be imprisoned for up to three years." Sounds good on the surface, CNET says, but the legislation is poorly written (say civil rights organizations) and could soon be challenged in court on First Amendment grounds. The Federal Trade Commission rejected the idea of a do-not-spam registry in 2004 because it couldn't stop overseas or illegal spam. Another problem is that businesses that market (legitimately) via email don't know about the laws (which apply to anyone sending email into the two states) and, when they do, costs will mount ("the monthly fee would be $120 to keep a million-person mailing list scrubbed and current"), though that won't concern kids or parents. The FTC already addressed the issue about illegitimate businesses, and let's hope no malicious hackers gain access to the databases of children's email addresses. CNET explains the laws in greater detail, concluding that they "could become a harbinger for the rest of the nation." The Salt Lake Tribune later reported that Utah's anti-spam law, scheduled to go into effect July 1, was delayed two weeks. Here's the Detroit News and a somewhat sarcastic report from The Inquirer that would give all child advocates pause.
- More Net on mobiles
The signs are everywhere that the Internet - with all its capabilities, pluses, and minuses - is about to arrive on a cellphone near you (including your child's). First, video: "To fill those awkward moments when no one is calling, texting, or emailing us," as Internet News put it, soon there will be "video snacks" on our cellphones. Two Minute Television, specializing in "entertainment for teensy attention spans" and very small screens, will soon be providing "a free, ad-supported mobile TV channel featuring shows like 'Adventures in Speed Dating' for mobiles. Users can subscribe directly via SmartVideo's video-programs catalog, but SmartVideo will also be doing deals with mobile phone companies, who may allow you to pay them as well. ;-) SmartVideo also offers ABC News, NBC Universal, Fox Sports and The Weather Channel, Internet News adds. Musicians, too, are "going mobile" to reach fans directly, the BBC reports. "Sony Ericsson is bringing out a range of Walkman-branded phones, while Motorola is working on an iTunes-compatible mobile with Apple." Here's the New York Times today on phonemakers' shift to music. In Europe, phone services are increasingly opening up to the wide-open spaces of the Net. T-Mobile, which used to restrict customers to the "T-zones walled garden ... is to offer subscribers full Internet access via Google," the BBC reports, and "rival Vodafone has joined forces with Microsoft to allow people to exchange instant messages between its messaging service and MSN Messenger." The BBC cites analysts as saying these are just further indicators that "the Net is becoming an integral part of mobiles." Here's more on the everywhere Net from Forbes.
- Kids' cellphone costs
A little article in The Register cites a very big number for what UK kids spend on mobile phones: $1 billion pounds, or $1.77 billion, a year. It's not clear how old the children are, but presumably they're under 18. Parents surveyed said they "are so concerned about the spiralling cost of using mobiles, they want operators to do more to help them control their children's spending," according to a survey by mobile billing company Convergys, but 30% feel the phone companies "aren't interested in their concerns." A whopping 90% have opted for prepaid cellphone service "to try and keep a lid on their kids' spending." Half of those who don't have their kids using prepaid phones want to be alerted when their children's spending nears a designated limit. Meanwhile, 25% of parents say their kids have wasted money on premium rate services such as ringtones, and 16% feel they spend too much of their pocket money on their phone. The US has kid-phone-debt issues too - see "Cell-phone digital divide?" in my 3/4 issue and "Prepaid phone service: Getting hot."
- Tech teachers: Help kids compete
While motivated young techies in India, South Korea, and so many other countries compete for top tech jobs in the First World and their own developing "Silicon Valleys," US kids have to wait till college to learn anything about computer science. And the number of Americans majoring in the subject is declining. Technology teachers and coordinators say state education departments and school districts need to "embrace the idea of training sophisticated computer users at a younger age," the Associated Press reports. "States have few developed standards or required courses in computer science - a field that goes beyond basic literacy to encompass hardware and software design, real-world applications and computers' effect on society." It's a tough sell, the AP continues. "Computer science, like other subjects, is fighting for time on student schedules and a place on the political agenda, where reading and math dominate." [The AP talked to the newly formed Computer Science Teachers Association last week at the 143rd Annual Meeting of the National Education Association, the US's largest teachers' union.] Meanwhile, tech executives are telling Congress how much they're having to go overseas to find the tech skills their companies need.
- ID theft's upside?
It looks like all the news about identity theft has been good in one way: People are getting smarter about PC security. That's the conclusion Washington Post tech writer Robert MacMillan drew from the latest Pew Internet & American Life study. [Robert's article includes a "two-word glossary" of "spyware" and "adware."] Pew found that "91% of Internet users have changed their online behavior for fear of becoming victims" of spyware. Other key findings:
- 81% of Net users say they have stopped opening email attachments unless they're sure the docs are safe.
- 48% have stopped visiting particular Web sites they fear might install unwanted software on their PCs.
- 25% have stopped downloading music or video files from file-sharing networks to avoid getting unwanted software programs on their computers.
- 18% have started using a different Web browser to avoid spyware.
- More LAN party locations...
...is good news for videogamers, who like battling it out in person, in groups, and with unlimited bandwidth (provided by a LAN, or "local-area network," that connects them all for playing tournaments). Thus this logical new use for strip-mall space: gaming centers, where - for around $6/hour - gamers can have their LAN without having to mess with dragging in and setting up their own CPUs. One example is X30 centers in the Washington, D.C., area. The first such center opened in May. In it, "23 personal computers line sloping walls painted a deep blue and lime green. Couches and oversized beanbags provide resting spots for spectators, while the gamers sit in cushy executive-style chairs," the Washington Post reports. "The goal was to create a distinct but easily replicable design ... referencing Starbucks, master of that concept. On a recent weekend, 40 teenage boys - and one girl - crammed in to compete in a marathon Counter-Strike tournament."
- Library access: Demand exceeds supply
Where Internet use is concerned, demand is exceeding supply in America's libraries, and this is where the digital divide is most apparent. The American Library Association recently surveyed US libraries and found that 99.6% are now connected to the Net (up from 20.9% in 1994), but for the first time its survey asked libraries about how they were doing with meeting demand," the Associated Press reports. "Seventy percent of libraries said there aren't enough computer terminals during peak periods, while another 16% said there's always a shortage." The solution is time limits. On the surface they make sense, but low-income patrons are the ones losing out. "Shortages are most common in high-poverty and urban areas, the study found." For example, "libraries in California's Fresno County impose a half-hour limit during peak periods, but one branch reported that patrons needed two hours or more of computer time just to fill out online job applications for a new Home Depot store."
- P2P & media firms' eyes on Sweden
Even a law criminalizing file-sharing - Sweden's new one - isn't likely to put a serious dent in it. The Associated Press reports that "Swedes are among the most prolific file-sharers in the world. Industry groups estimate that about 10% of Sweden's 9 million residents freely swap music, games and movies on their computers." So, the AP continues, "unless Swedes have suddenly changed their habits, about one in 10 became a criminal on Friday." That's when Sweden's new law banning the sharing of copyrighted media (following an EU directive) took effect. The country's justice minister said, however, that chasing down file-sharers won't be a priority for Swedish police unless their file-swapping's egregious. Meanwhile, while BitTorrent and eDonkey users are swapping movies, pay-per-film sites - the film versions of iTunes and Napster - are set to take off, the New York Times reports. "The [film] studios will most likely make downloads available to a wide range of online distributors. Those that are preparing to offer the movies include Movielink, MSN, Sony's Connect service, Target.com, and CinemaNow, an online movie rental store." Prices will probably be similar to those of DVDs. See also the San Jose Mercury News on "file-sharing's new era" and the Los Angeles Times's "Big Labels Have Digital Trust Issues" about what paying customers can do with their MP3s. "The music is the same, and the sound quality is hard to distinguish. But there is a wide gap between what buyers can do with a CD and what they are allowed to do with a legal download."
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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