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Internet

Companies offer decency shields

The Children's Internet Summit opens with a slew of companies announcing remedies to protect children from adult-oriented material online.

The Children's Internet Summit opened today in Washington with a slew of companies, including America Online, Walt Disney, Gateway 2000, and SurfWatch, announcing their own remedies to protect children from accessing adult-oriented material on the Net.

As previously reported, the three-day summit is aimed at demonstrating how technology can be used to make Net surfing safe for children. Since the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act this June, the White House and lawmakers have been trying to persuade parents to use technology to curb children's access to adult material. This makes good business for the companies, too: for the Net to become a mass medium, parents must be assured that it is safe.

A recent study found that 14 percent of children in the United States log on to the Net, a number that promises to grow dramatically as the government steps up its efforts to wire the nation's schools.

Today AOL announced some initiatives that it says will make it easier for parents to control what their children see and do online. One, called "AOL Neighborhood Watch," is in the form of an icon that directly links members to safety and security areas such as parental controls, email safety, and notify AOL. An expanded parental control category will offer a new level of restricted access for younger teens, for example. Many features will be included in the new AOL 4.0 software rolling out in coming months.

"We want kids to be able to tap into this [emerging medium] in an enjoyable and protected way," AOL chief executive Steve Case said in a statement. "And today we are expanding parents' ability to ensure that their kids have safe experiences online."

Disney announced initiatives of its own, such as a search and directory tool, dubbed D-Guide, that will point families to "thousands of kid-appropriate Web sites" starting next year. It also launched a public-education program this week to teach families lessons about online safety. Disney also reiterated the parental-control features of its recently launched D-mail and D-browser for its children's online service, Disney's Daily Blast.

"Parents have legitimate concerns about how to manage their kids' Internet experiences," Disney Online president Jake Weinbaum said in a statement. "Until those concerns are overcome with solid working solutions, the medium will not be able to realize its potential."

Bonus.com, another online site for children, touted a technology called NetScooter that limits navigation only to activities that have been "specially created for Bonus.com, or selected, edited, and included in the Web site by Bonus.com's editorial staff."

The initiatives extended to PC makers as well. Gateway 2000 said it has added "safety" software and created an ISP geared toward the family that can be accessed with "the touch of a button." A guide discussing the "do's and don'ts" of Internet safety is dubbed the Warm Wide Web.

Also at today's summit, Webnet-Marketing Incorporated previewed SmartParent.com, a not-for-profit Web site dedicated to educating parents about ways to safeguard their children in cyberspace. The site is cosponsored by Yahoo, Infoseek, and WebTV.

Still, the summit had its detractors. "An administration truly devoted to children would move heaven and Earth to protect American families from obscenity and child pornography on the Internet," Family Research Council president Gary Bauer said today. "Instead, the Clinton administration will be playing a central role in the upcoming Internet 'public relations' Summit. What a waste that the summit sponsors' primary goal is to do damage control for Internet service providers and not to focus on the damage being done to children online."