Kids Playing in Traffic on the Information Superhighway

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, January 1996

Net Nanny
$49.95 list

Net Nanny, Ltd.
Main Floor, 525 Seymour Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 3H7
604-683-9294 (fax)

The child's eyes were wide open, with a combination of horror and excitement, watching the glowing screen.... you may have seen that cover of Time Magazine, early in the summer, a part of the media bouncing back from its uncritical exaggerated hype of the Internet, with an equally one-dimensional attack on so-called cyberporn.

Time, for example, based its June 26th cover story on what it described as "an exhaustive" study on the pervasiveness of online pornography, by Martin Rimm, originally published in the Georgetown Law Review. Among other claims, Time quoted that in "Usenet groups where digitized images are stored, 83.5 percent of the pictures are pornographic."

Response to the cover story was immediate, and critical of its methodology and results. Take the statistic about Usenet groups, for example. Usenet groups, on the Internet, are online public discussion groups... covering over 4,000 different topics from highly technical, to pop culture, to business, to (yes), sexuality.

Rimm checked 17 of the 4,000 groups over a seven day period-- 17 groups that all had a sexual focus, and not surprisingly, found the majority of content in those groups was sexually oriented.... and even here, while Usenet groups can include graphics, they are sent in as encoded text, and can't even be viewed without tedious decoding and special software-- not typically among the computer skills of even the precocious subteen pictured on Time's cover. Buried in the fine print of both Rimm's study and the Time article was another statistic, suggesting that only 0.5% of Internet traffic could be considered pornographic.

The harm, however, has been done-- the public impression of the Internet as a den of pornographers will be hard to shake. (Readers with Internet access interested in a detailed critique of Rimm's study and the Time article can check

And like many paranoid fantasies, there is a core of reality-- if you look for cyberporn on the Internet, you're going to find it. Playboy's World Wide Web site is among the most popular single destinations on the Web. Or go to a general interest site like 'Downtown Anywhere', which aims to be sort of like an online mall. You'll find a wide range of businesses located there, such as the Icelandic National Tourist Agency. But check the list of the ten most visited locations there-- the week I checked, seven of the ten were sexually oriented.

It's not surprising. Sex has sold other new technologies-- the first generation of video rental stores, for example, were almost all specialists in x-rated movies. And even with the broadening of the Internet's user-population, a large percentage remains University undergraduates (predominantly male), with free access through their academic institution.

Parents, businesses, and schools have a legitimate desire to limit access to sex on the Net. And so there has been increasing interest in a technological fix to the problem created by the uncontrolled technology of the Net. One of the most well thought-out has been created by Vancouver?s Net Nanny, Ltd. (formerly Trove Investment Corporation).They have produced the $49.95 Net Nanny, which gives parents (or teachers or even employers) the power to limit access to any content deemed inappropriate. When this software is installed onto a computer (currently DOS or Windows only), it continually monitors the computer for content that has been added to its dictionary-- this could be sexual or drug or even  racial or violence-oriented. If, for example, the word "bomb" had been listed in the administrative dictionary, any documents accessed, or any requests for access that include this word will be recorded. At that point, the computer can be set to simply record the access, to lock the keyboard, or even to shut down. If desired, the shut down computer cannot be rebooted without using a password entered by adult controlling the Net Nanny installation. This can be very powerful-- and can do more than simply prevent a child from accessing certain sites.

Many parents, for example, are uneasy about their children giving out their phone number or address while on-line. Adding these to Net Nanny?s dictionnary will make it impossible for your child to share this information with cyber-strangers.

The Net Nanny folks are including sample dictionnaries with their software, and are promising to make updated lists available for downloading. This is important, because adults can include the Web addresses or UseNet group names that they want their kids to avoid, simply by adding them to the dictionnary... getting a ready-made list from Trove saves hours on the Net looking for the places where you don?t want your kids to go.

There are lots of benefits from letting children explore the on-line community-- but like any community, physical or virtual, cyberspace has its bad neighborhoods. Net Nanny allows a parent to set some limits, while allowing their child the freedom to wander where they choose within those limits.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan