As previously reported by CNET News.com, the company said the free, downloadable browser and new children's services, dubbed "EarthLink Kids Powered by SurfMonkey," are designed to offer children a safer online experience. The services, which will be offered on EarthLink's site, will include links to educational Web sites as well as filtering technology that attempts to block inappropriate material.
The move represents something of a marketing about-face for EarthLink, which has in the past positioned its service as an alternative to AOL Time Warner's America Online service, targeting savvy Net surfers uninterested in hand-holding and oversight by their Internet service provider. That strategy has helped EarthLink build a subscriber base of some 4.8 million, making it one of the largest ISPs in the United States. But it still distantly trails AOL, which has created a 30 million subscriber powerhouse on its pitch of making online access easy and safe, partly by giving parents control over the content that their children can see.
Shin Seto, an EarthLink product manager, said the company decided to offer the children's services because of the "growing concern over a lot of dangers that are on the Internet," such as porn and hate sites as well as strangers that children may encounter through online chat rooms, instant messaging or e-mail.
"We wanted our member base to be protected from those type of things," Seto said.
EarthLink also offers a premium service, which costs $2.95 per month or $29.95 per year, that provides advanced parental controls on e-mail, instant messaging, videophone, bulletin boards and chats. The paid service, for instance, includes a technology that enables children to communicate with friends whom the parents have approved.
While EarthLink is aiming to provide children with a safe online experience, the company is also attempting to strengthen its position in the ISP market.
The new services come at a time when the federal government is boosting its efforts to implement laws to block access to online pornography. The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), signed into law in December by then-President Clinton, requires schools and libraries that are applying for federal funding to use filters to screen material deemed offensive to children. The law, however, has received criticism from librarians to advocacy groups that say CIPA violates First Amendment rights. The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association have filed lawsuits challenging the law, and a court hearing is scheduled for next February.
Campbell, Calif.-based SurfMonkey said it built the children's browser and services for ISPs that want to compete with AOL, which offers a Parental Control content filtering system. SurfMonkey said it uses a technology that checks Web pages and rates that particular page against a list of inappropriate Web sites. If a child, for instance, stumbles on a porn site, that site will be blocked. However, if the child is doing research on sex education, those sites related to that information will be allowed. The company said it checks words and combination of words so acceptable sites will not be blocked.
SurfMonkey added that it does not track children's online behavior or collect personal data.
"We really see the Internet as the biggest encyclopedia and a tremendous educational resource," said David Smith, vice president and founder of SurfMonkey. "We believe that parents really want to open that resource to kids that really has been restricted in the past."