Kids and Web Browsers: To Block or not to Block?

Educators

Welcome to another chapter in the browser wars -- and this time, I don't mean IE vs. Netscape vs. whomever. Rather, the struggle of free speech vs. censorship taking place in the battlefield of children's browsers and blocking software.

I started reflecting on kids' browsers and related software recently as I watched my 5-year-old surf his latest favorite site on my computer, Lego.com. I got to thinking that if he missed one letter, www.lego.com could become www.legs.com, and there's probably not a lot of good youth-oriented content down that road.

Of course, I was aware that there are a lot of options for helping to monitor and control my child's use of the Internet, but I had never really thought too much about the issues and ramifications of using such censoring software.

Now, I like to think I believe in free speech as much as the next guy, but I can really see both sides of this issue. As a father who won't always be around when my children are using the Internet on our home PCs, a part of me wants the power to censor. I don't feel good about it, though.

As I sat down to research the topic, it was comforting to find that there are so many companies and products willing to help me control my children's surfing experience. There are more children's-oriented browsers available than their adult counterparts, and when you add on all of the kids' search engines, and blocking and filtering products out there, you begin to get the sense that this is a bustling segment of the industry.

As I mentioned, my son is just 5 and at that age he's not going to be using computers without adult supervision (at least in our house). I made the mistake of showing him the delete key early on and now live in fear that my latest work will fall prey to the 5-year-old ax, so I'm usually pretty aware when he's sitting at my machine.

But it won't be long before he will be able to come into the study, fire up a computer and go off exploring in cyberspace all on his own, and it's never too early to start figuring out how best to handle it. After all, I volunteered for the tech committee at his elementary school, I should certainly know about this stuff!

So, I spent an afternoon downloading a bunch of kids' browsers and blocking programs, hoping I could get a better idea of what I was dealing with. I also read up on the issues surrounding kids' browsers and software designed to limit children's exposure, or "censorware" as it is dubbed by the Peacefire.org group. More on those spunky kids later.

I downloaded trial versions of programs like SurfControl, WebKids, Bounce, Cybersitter, and SurfMonkey and put them through some paces. I found it quite easy to bring up clearly adult content in almost all cases, though perhaps this says more about how long I've been poking around the dark corners of the Net than anything else. Bounce was the one program that seemed a bit better than the others at screening out adult content.

Blacklists?

Some programs use a blacklist of forbidden sites that gets regularly updated, others screen requested pages for words and certain types of images (though this feature seems to work marginally at best).

Some let parents opt-in or opt-out of specific sites, and most use a kid-oriented search engine or directory. A new entrant, Internet Safari, uses artificial intelligence and "advanced image detection and analysis" on every requested Web page, and sports a catchy jungle theme.

Whatever comfort I had previously felt quickly left as I demo'd these various programs. They were clunky and slow on the whole, but especially troublesome was the fact that they didn't seem to adequately censor the porn sites I was worried about, but did censor some sites that I thought shouldn't be.

And that's really the problem with censorship after all, isn't it? One man's trash is another's treasure, and all that.

It started hitting home for me then: this wasn't going to be the best approach to monitoring my kid's Internet use. I began suspecting what I think I knew all along, that this was going to take frank discussions, hands-on supervision, and some amount of trust.

Then I stumbled upon the Peacefire.org site and got my eyes opened even more. This group was started by kids to raise awareness about censoring software and free speech and has some serious perspectives to offer on the censorship debate. Plus, you've got to love a group that has the slogan, "It's not a crime to be smarter than your parents."

Not surprisingly, the site is chock full of food for thought. For instance, a report called "Amnesty Intercepted: Global human-rights groups blocked by Web censoring software," lists 30 human-rights advocacy websites, including Amnesty International and its affiliates, that are currently blocked by Cyber Patrol, Bess, Cybersitter, and SurfWatch. Another article highlights the websites of U.S. political candidates that are censored in one way or another by these types of programs.

And don't try getting to the Peacefire site from any of these programs, because you will certainly be blocked there as well. Since they offer advice and tools for disabling censorware, I guess that shouldn't come as a surprise. But the National Organization for Women and Amnesty International? This wasn't quite what I was hoping to protect my son from.

It becomes pretty clear that the decisions on which sites should be blocked can be a bit arbitrary, are prone to errors, and may not be made with the criteria I would approve of. To be fair, some of these programs do allow you as the parent to completely specify whatever sites you do or do not want accessible to your child. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I don't have the time to carve out a morally and politically correct subset of the Web for my kids.

I know there's a lot of questionable stuff out there on the Web, but the reality is we're not going to make it go away anytime soon. We can try to pretend it isn't there by using blocking and filtering software, but those kind of solutions only last as long as you have total control over your children's computing experiences.

It reminds me of the dilemma of censoring TV viewing in a household. A common outcome is that children become overly interested in the banned material, and go out of their way to see it in other settings, like a friend's house.

Today, friends have computers and Internet connections, too. So after much hand wringing and seedy Web surfing, I've decided not to use any kind of blocking or filtering software in our house. I'm not going to take the easy way out and hope a computer program will deal with the difficulties of raising children in a society where explicit sexual and violent imagery is more readily available than ever.

I'd even like it if my children do turn out smarter than me.

Bruce Stewart is a telecommunications consultant and technical writer. His articles have appeared here on Webtools as well as on Web Review, ZDNet, and the Industry Standard. Contact Bruce with thoughts on his column at bruces@sonic.net or through the Webtools editor.

For more of Bruce's Columns, visit the Browser Bytes Index Page.