Tech Industry

Product lets parents choose, not filter

KiddoNet, aimed at parents of four- to eight-year-olds, lets parents select sites their children can access, instead of employing a filter.

One of the most argued points about the Internet is whether to filter its unruly content to shield minors from viewing sexually graphic or violent content. Those in favor of filtering see it as a simple solution, while those opposed call it "censorware" that sometimes blocks out valuable content.

Tomorrow, SystemSoft Corporation will announce its solution: KiddoNet, which doesn't set any predetermined filters, but rather lets parents pick the sites their children can access. The product is targeted at people with surfers ages four to eight at home.

KiddoNet is being marketed to PC makers for bundling with their products, creating an opportunity for kids' Web sites to pitch their destinations as built-in components of KiddoNet's "My Favorites" list. Parents can nix any site listing that comes with their copy of the program, which features a cartoon-like browser interface. Even if a parent allows access to a search engine, a child won't be able to link to sites unless they are approved. Expected to ship this quarter, KiddoNet can be bundled with SystemSoft?s SystemAccess, which lets parents create password-protected levels of access to other documents and programs on their PC, such as a Web browser that allows unfiltered access to the Net.

KiddoNet isn?t the first, and probably won?t be the last product created in an attempt to make parents more secure about where their children go on the Internet.

Since the Supreme Court threw out the Communications Decency Act this summer, many, including President Clinton, have been pushing the use of technological solutions to keep minors away from adult content and to prevent them from giving out their personal information in cyberspace. In December, former Federal Trade Commissioner Christine Varney will host the Internet/Online Summit: Focus on Children, to bring together high-tech executives, educators, law enforcement officers, and parents in order to explore "private-sector solutions to online content inappropriate for children."

At the same time, the federal government is pushing to increase kids' access to cyberspace by, for example, approving billions of dollars in discounts for schools and libraries to get hooked up to the Net.

"The proliferation of the World Wide Web has created a significant challenge for parents who are encouraging children and students to use PCs, yet want to ensure safe usage of the Internet," Jonathan Joseph, executive vice president of SystemSoft, said in a statement. "SystemSoft believes that KiddoNet will encourage more children to use PCs and the Internet, helping to fuel growth in the sub-$1,000 PC market."

Many agree that technology is not an effective solution for avoiding certain material online. Some argue that products such as KiddoNet often require a lot of know-how and time on the part of parents, which could be discouraging.

"It might have some problem in execution because you're asking the parents to do a lot of work. A lot of parents are still intimidated by this technology," said Karen Coyle, an advocate for the American Library Association.

The challenges in making the Net useful for children go beyond limiting access to pornography and profanity, Coyle said.

"Just getting rid of the sex stuff is not what will make the Internet a tool for six-year-olds. If a child does a search on gravity, for example, they'll pull up papers written at the graduate-school level," she added. "We need to decide what is the utility for kids now, and then decide what we want it to be."