November 13, 2008

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How to tame the Internet
Ward off porn, drugs, and other fun adult things

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Obi-Wan Kenobi was talking about Mos Eisley spaceport, but he could have just as easily been referring to the Internet: “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

There’s plenty of debate to be had over whether or not libraries and companies should be filtering the Internet access of patrons and employees, but most parents feel pretty confident that they have the right to restrict what their young children see on the Web. While personal supervision can’t be beat, it’s not always possible or practical, and plenty of software exists to help you control the stuff coming through the tubes.

Any solution you choose should be customizable for your situation. You should be able to add specific sites to block if you don’t think they’re appropriate, and you should also be able to specifically allow sites that are blocked by default. Maybe your tween is doing a paper on breast cancer, or you think they’ve gotten way, way too old for the Wiggles, or you want to make absolutely sure they never download a non-Kosher recipe.

The best known filtering software is probably Net Nanny. For $40 a year, of course it blocks pornographic Web sites, but it also checks instant messenger programs, chat rooms, file transfer applications and even that holdover discussion forum from early dial-up modem days, Usenet. It keeps records of surfing history and chat sessions for your later review, and a remote management feature even lets you check up on the computer while it’s in use, even if you’re in another room or another country. Another $10 adds the ability to track down and delete troublesome content saved to your computer and flag suspicious Web sites that might be trying to masquerade as legitimate sites. netnanny.com

That’s all well and good if your child’s innocence is worth two Jacksons every single year. For a similar program that charges nothing, check out K9 Web Protection. Its parent company, Blue Coat, makes its money selling security software and hardware to businesses. Like Net Nanny, K9’s Web site features a loving parent looking over the shoulder of a less-than-thrilled child at a keyboard. It divides Internet content into 60 categories, including “Intimate Apparel/Swimsuit,” “Illegal Drugs,” “Weapons” and others. There’s a real-time filter you can enable so that sites not on K9’s list can still be blocked if they’re determined by the software to be objectionable. k9webprotection.com

A Christian nonprofit organization, TechMission (“Our Values are Jesus, Justice and Technology”), provides another free software download, called Safe Families. Despite any ideological beliefs its distributor might hold, the software is configurable to specifically block or allow certain sites, and you can choose what categories of content you want blocked. It’s actually an update of an older free program called We-Blocker; TechMission boasts an additional 300,000 blocked sites since We-Blocker’s last official update in 2001. safefamilies.org

Symantec has a solution that’s sort of free. It’s an add-on to its Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 products, and in addition to parental controls for Web surfing, it provides an e-mail spam filter and protection against confidential files being sent out over the Internet. The filtering portion has pre-defined control profiles for adults, children and teens, but those profiles can be customized for each user. symantec.com/Norton/add-on-pack

Other options, if you insist upon spending money, include CYBERsitter for a one-time fee of $40, CyberPatrol for a $40 annual license and SafeEyes for $50 a year. The latter two have several pictures of concerned family members monitoring young’uns’ usage, so you know they’re good.