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Access provider offers Net version of child care

San Francisco-based Kids Online America unveils a partnership with child care provider Bright Horizons to market "family friendly" surfing to child care clients.

Employers may soon offer a new workplace benefit: monitored Internet access for children.

San Francisco-based Internet service provider Kids Online America (KOLA) today unveiled a partnership with child care provider Bright Horizons to market "family friendly" surfing to Bright Horizons' network of corporate clients. Under the deal, KOLA will become the exclusive online service to Bright Horizons' 300 Family Centers, which will provide child care centers with Internet access.

Children represent a tempting but potentially risky business opportunity on the Net, where fears of exploitation run high. The KOLA partnership comes just four days after a federal law took effect requiring Web site operators to obtain a parent's permission before collecting personal information from children.

Efforts to limit children's access to Web content through software "filters," meanwhile, have run into heavy criticism from Internet civil liberties groups.

"Parents should always supervise children with what they're viewing," said Jason Catlett, founder of Junkbusters, a clearinghouse for privacy issues. "For teens, the Internet is a wonderful thing as much as for adults; however, children don't understand the issue of privacy and don't realize they're (a marketing target). It doesn't have to be that way."

Some Bright Horizons partners, including Bell Atlantic and Macromedia, have free access to the service beginning today. Other companies can choose to pick up the bill or can sign up so that employees can access the service at reduced rates. The average cost to employees who sign up on their own is $3.95 per month, while the average cost through a corporation is $1 per family per month.

KOLA chief executive Stephen Valerie said the service not only meets standards of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which took effect Friday, but it "exceeds them to raise the bar on Internet security."

"We are the darling of COPPA," he added.

Valerie said parents are asked to provide general information about their children before using the service, in compliance with COPPA. Although the company proposes to make some money through advertising, it does not plan to collect personally identifiable information, he added.

In terms of security features, KOLA is using several techniques to keep children from "objectionable" sites. It incorporates a browser that requires a parent to access other desktop applications with a password, a site alert that lets people notify KOLA about questionable destinations, a monitor for children's chat rooms, and a real-time filtering system that can be adapted to parents' needs.

"KOLA is not a filtering software solution, but it is a new kind of family Internet service designed from the ground up," Valerie said.

KOLA filters content such as pornography, violence and hate group Web sites. The service has a team of editors who abide by standards set by an educational advisory council made up of teachers who decide what kinds of sites are appropriate, the company said.

In addition, parents and children can provide feedback to KOLA to let them know which sites they approve of and which sites they find objectionable.