PARRY AFTAB, ESQ.
Office of Policy Analysis and Development
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Room 4716 HCHB
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230
Attention: Sallianne Fortunato Schagrin
Re: Request for Comments on the Effectiveness of Internet Protection Measures and Safety Policies, Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)
As an Internet lawyer, author, child Internet expert, and safety and privacy advocate, as well as Executive Director of WiredSafety.org (formerly known as Cyberangels), I submit these comments about the effectiveness of existing Internet protection measures and the Children’s Internet Protection Act. My remarks on content issues and risk management for children online are based in large part on excerpts from my book, The Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace, McGraw-Hill, 2000, (UK edition and Spanish US editions as well as a Singaporean adaptation), my legal expertise and upon our work in protecting people online for more than five years.
The WiredSafety family of sites and programs are the largest online safety and help group in the world, run entirely by unpaid volunteers. We handle all aspects of online safety, privacy and cybercrime prevention. I receive more than 1000 e-mails daily from Internet users ranging from 7 to 86 years old. My Ask Parry column responds to hundreds of questions from parents, grandparents and educators every month. We work closely with law enforcement worldwide to investigate crimes against children, as well as all aspects of cybercrime. I was named by UNESCO in 1999 to head up its online child exploitation program for the United States. WiredSafety, and its WiredKids.org program serve in such a capacity, as well as being a 501c3 under U.S. law. For more information about our efforts to protect children around the world, please visit www.wiredsafety.org, www.wiredpatrol.org, and www.wiredkids.org.
The essence of this comment is that technology can be very important as a tool to help protect children from being exposed to inappropriate and disgusting materials online, but there is far more to protecting children online than installing a filter.
What Kinds of Things Can Technological Tools Do?
A Quick Overview of Features
There is a lot of variety in what the technology can do these days. Most blocking products or features work by classifying sites. They review sites and include them in either a good or white/clean site list (which contains kid-friendly sites) or a bad or black/banned site list (which have been reviewed and found to be inappropriate for children based on certain criteria). Children can be limited to only the good sites, or prevented from going to the bad ones.
But since the Web is growing by more than a hundred thousand registered sites a month, no bad-site list can hope to keep up. That’s why most products also filter words and phrases, and some even filter them in context to prevent blocking innocent phrases. (The difference between blocking and filtering is this—blocked sites are reviewed and categorized in advance, and filtered sites are reviewed as they are accessed by the child.)
When children attempt to access a site that is blocked or filtered, they can’t access it. Some products tell you why you can’t access it. They provide announcements or “alerts,” informing the child that the site is “blocked by ——— [name of product].” Others work in stealth mode. That means that they don’t tell you they’re blocking (and may not even
tell your child that they are working). When a site is blocked in stealth mode, you merely get an error message.
Many products monitor and report on online use: where the children have been, how long they were there, and what they did online. (Some even take periodic snapshots of their screens or give you a log of everything your child said or your child heard online.)
Certain products can also monitor offline computer usage as well, such as how many hours (and which hours) the child spends on the computer or playing computer
games, and can restrict them from using certain software offline.
A few online services (such as America Online) provide their own proprietary products that work only on their systems. (AOL’s parental control is by far the most used parental control product in the world.) These are provided without charge to members. Some of the other software products can be used with online services (such as AOL and CompuServe), and others are designed only for the Internet and work with ISPs (such as
AT&T, Earthlink, and MCI/Worldcom). Many ISPs are making free software available for their members as well.
You can also use software to block certain incoming information (such as e-mail and instant messaging) entirely, to filter incoming information (to block those irritating pornography links contained in the e-mail), or to prevent certain information from being sent by your children to others (such as their names and your telephone number).
Online searches can be blocked as well, or limited to preapproved kidfriendly
search engines, such as Yahooligans and Ask Jeeves for Kids.
The programs are either customizable or preset by the manufacturer of the software. The more they can be customized, the more time they take to install and set up. Some allow you to set different levels of protection for different children, so you can set more restrictions for your younger children than for their teenage sibling. Many of the better
systems combine these various options, giving you the greatest protection
and maximum flexibility.
have reviewed and tested more than 160 different filtering, blocking and
monitoring products. A very good search engine for viewing the claimed features
of each product can be found at www.getnetwise.org.
Some products work better than others, some are free and others quite expensive
and charge for updates and some work only to track your children online while
others will filter out or block known sites. But bottom
Exhibit B hereto shows test results on the big four filtering and blocking products and how well they filtered or blocked various kinds of inappropriate content. The tests were conducted for my book, and need updating. The new testing will be redone with a much larger test pool of products shortly and we will be happy to provide this information to Congress.
Finally, tying filtering to funding is, in my humble opinion, a mistake. Teachers and school administrators know what works in their environment, which will differ from school to school. Trusting them to decide whether filtering is useful, or necessary, or whether they would prefer to use an acceptable use policy or Internet policy, or a combination of the two is preferred to mandating filtering when the products are not yet up to par, and may limit the students’ access to approved content, necessary for their school work. (A copy of two very helpful acceptable use policies are attached as Exhibit C hereto.)
We owe it to our children to improve the filter between their ears that will help them know whom to trust, how to click the “back button” to avoid inappropriate content and how to enjoy the wonders of the Internet, safely and privately. Internet safety education is key to this, and should be mandated, not filtering. Our online safety videos for children, for teens and for parents are going to be released in early Fall, online without charge. We have already produced these videos for the U.K. (I am part of the Home Office Task Force on Child Protection, and am the only US member, to my knowledge.)
educated special teams of teens in all aspects of Internet safety and privacy.
They then develop their own programs and share them with their local media,
schools and community groups. Teens are very effective in communicating the
risks and solutions to other youth, and can start this from the bottom up,
protecting children today from the real risks online. (You can learn more about
our TeenAngels program at wiredkids.org.)
It’s a matter of setting priorities and trusting our educators to do their job, and giving them what they need. That may or may not involve filtering, but will certainly involve Internet safety education and responsible surfing education for our children. We will assist in providing that, and welcome the opportunity to work with others in this area.
I hope that these comments will help the National Telecommunications and Information Administration evaluate the effectiveness of existing Internet protection measures, and make sound recommendations to Congress on how to foster technological developments in that direction. I’m available for testimony or further comments on this topic.
Very truly yours
Parry Aftab, Esq.
The WiredSafety Family of Sites and Programs
(formerly known as Cyberangels)
WiredKids.org, Cyberlawenforcement.org and
Exhibits A,B and C attached
Attachment to Comment by Parry Aftab, Esq. (WiredSafety.org, WiredKids.org, WiredPatrol.org and Cyberlawenforcement.org)
The Internet’s Dark Side
There’s a lot of offensive information on the Internet, no matter how you personally define “offensive.” Regardless of race, color, or creed, the Internet is an equal-opportunity offender. To overcome it, however, it’s important that we keep things in perspective.
Are We Being Cautious Parents . . . or Paranoid Wrecks?
Everything in life has risks. I remember years ago when I was watching Sesame Street with my children, and Grover appeared in a piece where he was afraid of everything. He was even afraid that the ceiling would fall in on him. (Los Angeles earthquakes aside. . . .) He had to be taught how to put his fears (and the dangers) in perspective. It was a good lesson. It taught us that when we don’t understand the risks, how things work, or the likelihood of things going wrong, even ceilings can become the object of terror. It might help to know what other parents worry about.
According to surveys taken by Jupiter several years ago, 72 percent of parents in 1998 were concerned about danger from strangers coming from e-mail and chatrooms. That figure rose slightly to 76 percent in 1999. For dangers from adult entertainment, the 1998 and 1999 figures are 68 percent and 75 percent, respectively —again, not a significant change. Parents seemed to show the most increase in concerns when dealing with marketing and advertising. Privacy issues concerned only 55 percent of the parents in 1998 but 68 percent in 1999, and concerns about advertising aimed at kids jumped from just 18 percent in 1998 to 45 percent in 1999. (Note that different surveys give different percentages, but all show increases in concern about commercial risks.)
The more recent surveys show an even higher concern by parents with privacy and commercial issues that affect their children online. Interestingly enough, when we have polled teens recently, privacy is their number one concern, even over online predators. These opinions are a result of both heightened awareness and an increase in Internet use among parents and youth alike.
To parents who aren’t familiar with the Internet, everything is equally frightening and dangerous. But as we learn more, we can distinguish between real and imagined dangers. This allows us, as Grover did, to weigh the benefits of being shielded from the elements against the risk of the ceiling falling in.
Our children know this, and remind us of the necessity of protecting privacy online. That, more than what they see online is far more dangerous in their opinion. I agree.
All Risks and Dangers Are Not Equal in Cyberspace
Part of the challenge we face in trying to keep our kids safe online is knowing the difference between what’s only annoying or offensive and what’s dangerous and even illegal. But whether it’s illegal or merely annoying, we need to remember that we have the right, as parents, to decide what our children should see and what they shouldn’t. And we have to be realistic about the risks. There’s a fine line between being a cautious parent and being a paranoid wreck. We shouldn’t see monsters under every cyberbed and in every cybercloset. We need to recognize where the real risks are, and remember that many things are only annoying, not dangerous. Finally, as our children mature and demonstrate improved judgment, we have to keep moving the bar higher, to give them more freedom and choices online. A big part of parenting is teaching our children to exercise their own judgment. The training wheels have to come off sometime.
Information Doesn’t Hurt Children—People Hurt Children
There are two kinds of risks our children face in life. One relates to our children’s sensitivities, emotional well-being, and intellectual growth. The other relates to their physical well-being and safety. While no one wants their children’s feelings hurt, or their being exposed to disgusting and hateful information, I think if given a choice we would prefer that to their being physically molested or hurt. It’s people who pose the greatest risks to our children online, not information.
But that doesn’t mean information can’t be a problem. We just need to recognize that not all information is created equal. The information our children can access ranges from information you may consider inappropriate, disgusting, or even dangerous for them emotionally, to how they can buy dangerous substances and guns online. Some parents believe that their children should have access to all information, no matter how outrageous they personally might believe it to be. They believe that it helps their children handle things they face in life and is a matter of intellectual freedom and free speech. Other parents believe that all information should be prescreened for their children since they—not the U.S. Constitution—are the final arbiters of their children’s intellectual freedom. There’s no right answer for all children, just a right one for your own children. Whether you decide that your children should have unlimited access to all content online, be limited to only preapproved content, or something in between, remember: It’s your choice. It’s not a political issue; it’s a parenting one. One of our few prerogatives as parents is to decide what information is appropriate for our own children.
What Kinds of Risks Are We Talking About?
There are two kinds of risks I’ll discuss in this chapter—risks to our children and risks your children pose to others. (Parents with perfect children may ignore the section on risks your children pose to others, as long as their perfect children also have perfect friends.)
Risks to Our Children
There are six types of risks our children face online:
1. They can access information that might be inappropriate for them. This includes pornography, hate, intolerance, bigotry, gore, violence, hoaxes, misinformation, and hype.
2. They can access information, do things, and purchase products that might be dangerous to them. There are sites that offer bomb-building recipes, sites that sell guns, alcohol, poisons, tobacco products and drugs, and sites that offer gambling online.
3. They can be stalked and harassed by people (often other children) who are rude, insulting, and make threats, or may send them viruses or hack their computers.
4. They can give up important and private information by filling out forms and entering contests online, and, as a result, be targeted by irresponsible marketers using unfair marketing techniques.
5. They can be scammed or defrauded when they buy things online, and risk disclosing our important financial information to others, like credit card and pin numbers and passwords.
6. They can be lured by cyberpredators who want to meet them face-to-face.
If you look over the list, you’ll see that all but two of the risks are within our children’s control. Except when they stumble inadvertently on certain content, they can avoid information that is either inappropriate or dangerous. They can also refuse to fill out forms and registrations online or make sure the information they provide is okayed by their parents and is being treated responsibly by the entities that collect it. Only cyberstalkers, harassers, and cyberpredators are outside of their control. And until someone develops the “Beam me up, Scotty!” technology or ways to shrink our children so they can pass through the modem lines, your child has to agree to meet them, or has to give them information about where they can be found offline, to be really at risk. I’ll give you tips on how to avoid these risks online, but you need to deal with the fact that children might be intentionally accessing inappropriate sites, doing dangerous things, and putting themselves at risk. That’s the nature of children. (It’s especially the nature of teenagers!)
Stuff You Might Prefer Your Children Not See
For the most part, kids are quickly bored with adult sites and other inappropriate information. So, other than their first journey to the dark side to see what it holds in store, most of our kids and teens will wander back disappointed with what they found. (Not that they don’t wander back and forth a bit—especially when they are in groups and out to impress others, their hormones are raging, or when violence and gore sites are concerned.) But the dark side may hold more of a lingering lure to a troubled child or teen. (We’ve seen that with Littleton and other tragedies.) It’s a parent’s job to know if their child or teen is troubled. While some of these tips might help you understand more about their surfing habits and control their activities online, helping troubled teens with their pain and anger takes more than using a filtering software. It takes caring and professional advice. So while I’ll help you spot the risks online, you’re the one who needs to understand your child.
best filter is the one between their ears. Make sure you upload to it often,
values. That “filter” will work reminding them of your values whether they are
online or offline, for the rest of their lives.
Sexually Explicit Content—Adult Pornography
Spicy Girls! XXX-rated! Hot Teens and Bouncing Blonde Bombshells! Very few of us haven’t been exposed to this information online. There’s no question that there are hundreds of thousands of sexually explicit websites. It’s no wonder that Internet sex sites seem to get far more attention than any other content online. These adult-content sites range from the Playboy-type (which some parents may not strongly object to) to lurid hard-core and sexually deviant sites that even the most liberal parents would not want their kids to see. Fortunately, many responsible adult sites do what they can to keep your kids out by requiring a credit card or other adult-verification system to access their content. But much of this content is legal. Content on the Internet can’t and shouldn’t be limited to what is appropriate for only six-year-olds. There are many things that adults can legally do and access that may not be appropriate for children. That’s our prerogative as adults. But whatever our tolerance level is and whether it’s legal or not, we don’t have to allow our children to view what we consider inappropriate for them. As parents, it’s also our prerogative to decide what is appropriate for our children and what isn’t.
When I did a segment for Good Morning America a few years ago, I worked with a group of eight- to ten-year-olds in a suburban school assembly. I asked the kids what they did online that they knew their parents wouldn’t like. One nine-year-old timidly raised his hand and shared with us (and potentially the national television audience) that he looked at “naked people.” Gradually, the entire class raised their hands, admitting that they, too, looked at “naked people.” I joked that they were probably just studying biology, and convinced GMA not to use the confession in the piece. But nine-year-olds (and younger) can see naked people and far more with just a click of the mouse.
Children don’t have to find a retailer that will sell them an adult magazine. They don’t have to scrounge up the money to buy one. They don’t have to smuggle one out of a friend’s house (or your bathroom). The stuff they can see online is home-delivered, largely free, very easy to find (just use a regular search engine), and in many cases far more graphic than they would be able to buy even under-the-counter. Although many parents agree that graphic sexual content isn’t the most serious danger our children face online, few of us want our children exposed to images of bestiality, rape, or sadomasochism.
What Can Parents Do About It?
Plenty! But, first and foremost, we need to sit with our children and teach them that while they may have a healthy curiosity about naked people (and more), it’s not worth getting obsessed about and after the first thrill may be pretty boring. This is an important time to teach them about your attitudes toward sex, pornography, and degradation and why you consider this stuff a waste of their time. You have to constantly improve the filter between their ears—their judgment!
Hatred, Intolerance, and Bigotry
Ideas repugnant to many people have found a global audience in cyberspace. We need to make sure that our children become an informed, skeptical, and unwilling audience where hate, intolerance, and bigotry are concerned. The range of hate, intolerance, and bigotry sites is pretty broad. There are many sites that question whether the Holocaust ever happened. Others mock racial minority groups, ethnic groups, religious groups, and those with different sexual preferences. Some indirectly promote intolerance by promoting racial supremacy. In-groups make fun of those outside their groups—everyone who wants to promote hate can do so online.
Unfortunately, it took the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and before it the Littleton tragedy to make many people understand how much hate exists online (and offline). And most of it is legal. Hate laws in the United States regulate hate speech only when a certain group or individual is targeted in a way that promotes violence against them in a legally protected environment.
It’s ironic that the one medium that should promote equality and tolerance is so often misused to promote the opposite. The Internet strips away everything but how well you communicate your ideas. The Internet is blind to gender, age, physical disability, race, and religion. When you meet people online, you don’t know how old they are, whether they are male or female, what color their skin is, what accent they speak with, or how they pray. It’s the most egalitarian environment in the world. No geographical borders—seamless global communication. That’s the beauty of the Internet. Biases online can be pretty illuminating, though. For example, people are often surprised to learn I’m a woman, because I have an unusual name and because I’m a lawyer. I’m amazed that their tone online often changes after they find out I’m a woman. Why that should be the case, especially in this day and age, I don’t know. But we all do it. We all treat people differently based on their gender, age, or where they’re from. It’s part of how we’re trained.
What Can Parents Do About It?
We have to teach our children that many people on the Internet have biases and prejudices that clash with our values. It’s a good time to explain what your values are and to explain why you believe what you do. A solid grounding like this is your best weapon against others trying to sway your children’s opinions. When our children are exposed to outrageous bigotry and hatred online or anywhere else, we can help them understand the dangers of prejudice and the importance of diversity and tolerance. The more they have a chance to talk and share ideas with other children around the world, the more they will learn how alike we all are.
Mark Twain put his finger on it when he said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” On the Internet, our children travel the world every day. We need to make sure that they understand that they are truly part of the global community, and learn to celebrate the differences and diversity the global community represents rather than mock them.
Parents should discuss these topics with their children:
Once the discussion starts, be prepared for some hard questions and even tougher answers.
Violence and Gore
Kids and teens aren’t as interested in the sexually explicit sites as parents think they are, but they are much more intrigued by gory sites filled with amputated body parts and people clubbing baby seals and beached whales than any of us would have dreamed. Kids see them as horror movies rather than real life. I suspect the best thing we can do is hope they grow out of it.
One particularly savvy library media specialist I know told me that when the kids are grouped around the monitor with their faces pressed up against the monitor screen, she knows that it’s a gory site they are viewing.
Our Teenangels (a special team of teenagers I work with who are trained in online safety) tell me that their friends visit gory sites whenever they can. Many teenagers have shared with me the names of sites that purported to show body parts at famous accident scenes. I don’t understand the attraction, but it seems to be pretty universal among teenagers in particular. The sites range from just gross to very disgusting. (Some even show human corpses being cut into pieces or posed in grotesque ways.) The violent sites also often try to provoke violence. But given the recent events since the Littleton tragedy and the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, most of us understand these as “hate sites.”
What Can Parents Do About It?
Trying to educate our children not to “go there” might work. (I have no faith that it will, though.) But here we need education to teach our children that these aren’t horror movies, that the whales and seals being clubbed to death are real, and that the accident victims are someone’s loved ones. Filtering products also block and filter violence and gore sites.
Misinformation and Hype
The Internet is an inexpensive and easy method of publishing information. Anyone can be a publisher, and everyone is an expert. Separating the truth from fantasy in cyberspace is one of the hardest tasks we have. Con artists, scam artists, cultists, and just plain nutcases thrive in this free atmosphere.
How can you tell marketing hype from fact? What information is reliable and what is pure bunk? How do your kids separate Elvis sightings from scholarly discourse?
Robin Raskin a well-respected Internet expert, sees misinformation as a big problem, too, one that the latest technology can’t provide a quick fix for. “Most parental control software,” she states, “while it does a decent job of blocking pornographic material, does not do a very good job of blocking kooks, pyramid schemes, racism, or outright lies. These are subtleties that no technology can easily block.” I guess that leaves it up to us. Whether we like it or not, the buck stops here. It’s our job as parents to teach our children the difference between hype, misinformation, and quality sources wherever they find them. We also need to teach them that not everyone is what he or she seems to be. Most of us have already started teaching them that. Unfortunately, our children have to learn these things early. Every time I used to wheel my kids through the supermarket checkout aisle, supermarket tabloids would blast outrageous headlines at them: “Men from Mars Father Children in Indiana,” “Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman Shares the Secrets of Long Life,” and so on. Once they could read, I would have to explain the truth (although I could rarely explain it well enough, since I’m not sure I understand how they can get away with saying these things—and I’m a lawyer).
Every time a publishing company’s sweepstakes envelope would arrive addressed to them and heralding that they had won umpteen million dollars, I would have to explain the small print. But whether we’re in the supermarket or handing out the mail, we’re there to answer any questions. That’s why it’s important that we be there when they have surfing questions, too, especially when they are getting online for the first time. But that’s the easy part. When our kids are surfing alone, we need to teach them how to do it for themselves. That’s much harder.
What Can Parents Do About It?
Teach them to be smart information consumers. Try to get them to share what they learn and read in cyberspace with you, so you can do a reality check. Surf with them and point out outrageous sources that should be approached with skepticism. You also have to teach them to exercise their judgment. This is the most important thing we can teach our children, but it takes a special twist online. Other than the professional look of a site, there is very little a child can go on to judge a site’s credibility. Terrific groups like the American Library Association (ALA) and others have compiled recommended and safe-site lists, but these amount to no more than maybe forty thousand websites collectively (the size of a typical high school library). There is no Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval yet for Internet sites. (But some are coming! The WiredKids site, www.wiredkids.org, will be giving a “safe and fun site” seal of approval to qualified sites and WiredKids.org gives a safe site seal of approval to sites approved by WiredKids’ WiredMoms.)
So, what about the remainder of the millions of sites on the Internet? How do children judge site credibility when most adults can’t? What can they believe? The Teenangels have told me that we should teach younger children never to believe anything they see, hear, or read online. Perhaps that’s a bit extreme. But we do need to teach them to be skeptical. How do we teach children to measure the credibility of a site? How can they tell who’s behind the site? Is it a historian or a hate group? Is it sharing facts or fiction? How can we create smart Internet information consumers?
Trusting a Brand Name
Sometimes, until children have developed solid critical thinking skills, it’s often best to rely on the judgment of someone you trust. You might try to guide your children to school- and library-approved site lists. The ALA’s list of safe and approved sites is one of the best (www.ala.org/parentspage/greatsites). So is the Children’s Partnership list and our own WiredKids.org, Star Approved Sites list.
Either way, whether you use someone’s site list or trust their directories to screen out the kooks, you’re relying on a recognized name brand to help you select credible and worthwhile sites. We can teach our children how to exercise their own information literacy skills by making sure they talk to their librarians and teachers about how to evaluate the credibility of information. I’ve also set out a few tips in the “Kids Online in Schools” chapter, too. But whether they rely on trusted experts (or you) to help them evaluate information, or develop their own method to measure credibility, we should teach them to always question the source and use their best judgment, online and off. Our children have to become critical thinkers.
Cyber Hoaxes, Rumors, and Urban Legends
We aren’t strangers to urban legends. The crazed stalker of couples in lovers’ lane. The baby alligator brought back as a souvenir from Florida that, when flushed down the toilet, lived and hunted in the sewers. Some legends live on from one generation to the next. (Do we even have lovers’ lanes anymore, and aren’t alligators a protected or endangered species?)
Remember Mikey, the kid who wouldn’t eat anything? Well, you may also remember the rumor (totally unfounded) about twenty years ago that he died while eating Pop Rocks (the effervescent candy) when he drank a can of soda and his stomach exploded. (I wrote my senior thesis on that and other business rumors.)
Rumors, especially those that sound believable, have abounded for centuries. It isn’t any different in cyberspace. In fact, they move faster online than they ever could offline. Someone went to a movie and sat down on a hypodermic needle that had been left on the seat. She then contracted AIDS. Someone else was drugged by a beautiful woman and woke up in a bathtub filled with ice to find a kidney missing. (Apparently it had been removed and sold to someone who needed a kidney transplant.) Real or hoaxes? You be the judge.
But most good hoaxes and rumors have three main ingredients—they could happen, they touch something we know about or think is true (people can get HIV from an exposed infected needle, and people are desperate for transplant organs), and they feed on fear (getting HIV/AIDS, being drugged by strangers, dangers of having sex with strangers, etc.).
The difference between a rumor and a hoax is that while hoaxes are planned fakes, rumors may be believed and innocently passed on. But since once a hoax is passed on by people who believe it, it becomes a rumor, who cares anyway?
Computer Virus Rumors Are Just the Latest Fad of Cyberhoaxes
E-mail hoax messages warning me about some new virus hazard arrive in my mailbox daily. One night a few years ago, my son, Michael, sent me a list of supposedly infected files that someone had sent to him at college. The list included the upgrade for AOL, among many other unlikely virus-carrier candidates. This is the typical virus hoax that attempts to frighten people who have already installed popular programs, like AOL.
What Can Parents Do About It?
Luckily, there are several great websites you can refer to when you get your next e-mail announcing Armageddon, especially e-mails announcing the latest viruses. These sites will help you decide what to pay careful attention to and which to just ignore. If you want to check and see if the “latest news breaking horror of the week” e-mail is a hoax, you can go to the experts. Symantec, the maker of Norton AntiVirus (www.symantec.com/avcenter), IBM hype alerts (www.av.ibm.com/BreakingNews/HypeAlert), Carnegie
Mellon’s Software Engineering Institute’s CERT Coordination Center (www.cert.org), and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Computer Incident Advisory Capability page (ciac.llnl.gov) are the places you can trust to help you separate fact from fiction.
Before you forward any e-mail proclaiming the latest virus, check it out. It’s good Netiquette and a good way to preserve your credibility. And if you know someone who’s rumormongering in cyberspace, tell them, too. (Otherwise, ignore anything they send you, or tell them to remove you from their rumor mailing list.)
The Riskier Stuff: When Kids Do Dangerous Things and Buy Illegal or Dangerous Products Online Mom . . . How Do You Build a Bomb?
There are plenty of harmless books available on the Internet, but The Big Book of Mischief isn’t one of them. Don’t be fooled by its innocent name—the “mischief” it refers to is serious injury and death. It teaches violence, and gives our kids the tools they need to get the job done. To give you an idea of its tone, Part I is subtitled “The Terrorist’s Handbook.” Of course it comes with the requisite disclaimer: that serious injury or death could result from any attempt to make the recipes it contains, and that the book is being provided merely for your reading pleasure. (Apparently, everyone has a lawyer these days.)
which explains how you can buy whatever you need at your local grocery,
hardware, and farming supply stores to build a bomb. (It even includes a recipe
to make nitroglycerin.) And who are the terrorists armed with this deadly and
easily accessible information? Judging from recent tragic experiences and
other, lesser-known cases from around the United States, these “terrorists”
include our kids and kids who go to school with our kids. The really frightening part is that thousands
of teenagers have told me that they might try to build a bomb just to see if it
works. Girls and boys, inner
An illuminating pre-Littleton account of online bomb-building dangers appeared in a Ladies’ Home Journal article in March 1997 about a mother, Cheryl, whose thirteen-year-old son, Michael, suffered burns over 25 percent of his body when he and a friend were building a smoke bomb from instructions they had found on the Internet. It turned out that while Cheryl didn’t have a home computer, her son’s friend had Internet access at home, and the boys would go online unsupervised. Learning how to build a bomb turned out to be as simple as typing the word “bomb” into their favorite search engine.
At first, understandably, Cheryl was furious and blamed the Internet. Her anger that this type of information was available to children online, however, softened when she realized that her son could just as easily have found the bomb-building information at their local library. (Although teenagers tell me that they’d never bother to research this in a library. It’s the ease of accessibility that makes looking for this information online so appealing . . . and so dangerous.)
But Cheryl didn’t overreact. Recognizing the importance that computer literacy plays in a child’s life, the family bought a home computer four months after the accident, and subscribed to an online service. But they vowed to protect themselves and their son online.
What did they do to protect themselves and Michael while online? They put the computer in the family room, not in Michael’s bedroom. They also set rules for him, such as going online only when a parent is home. They also monitored him closely. They chose not to use any parental controls or filtering software, deciding instead to trust Michael to follow the rules. This is one family’s way of dealing with Internet risks, and a good one. Trust and education go a long way with the right child.
What Can Parents Do About It?
Most of this information is perfectly legal, and protected by the First Amendment. So, what can you do? You can take certain measures to make sure your children understand the dangers of these kinds of things. Let them know that kids can be disfigured, or lose limbs, fingers, and sometimes their lives from bomb-making accidents. Their appreciation of the dangers has to outweigh their teenage curiosity. You can also keep a lookout for signs that your kids may be getting into trouble.
There are several things parents should look out for if they’re concerned that their children may be getting into the bomb-building business: pails or buckets, soda or bleach bottles, pipes, ammonia, glycerin, or paraffin. Unfortunately, items like these aren’t likely to even raise our suspicions. That’s how easy it is for kids to gather what they need to build a bomb.
Parents should also be on the alert for children who collect empty containers or unusual-looking containers, nails or sharp screws, metal pellets, and shotgun shells that may have been broken open and emptied of their powder. Parents should also call the police if they find anything that looks suspicious, rather than attempt to deal with the “bomb” or bomb ingredients themselves.
In addition to education and keeping an eye out for suspicious activities, technology may also be a big help in making sure your kids aren’t accessing this kind of information online. You can filter incoming content and websites that use certain words, like “bombs.” You can also block sites that have been reviewed and found to contain this kind of information. Restricting younger children to prescreened sites is another way of avoiding this kind of content.
Bomb-building Information, Violence, and Responsibility— Post-Littleton
Especially since the Littleton tragedy, there has been a lot of interest in bomb-building information online. It’s significant that the number of questions I receive from parents about filtering products has increased tenfold since Littleton. While sex rarely moves parents to consider filtering, bomb building, violence, and hate seem to have tipped the scale for many parents.
But the filtering products don’t block these sites as completely as they do sites with sexual references. Be sure to review the product’s test results for the types of information you’re seeking to block or filter. And remember, all children should be educated about the risks as though you weren’t using a parental control product, even if you intend to use one. All children have to be able to handle information “unplugged.”
Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco, Guns, and Poisons
There are two different kinds of sites out there that deal with these topics. One group of sites promotes their use. The online risks of this information really aren’t any greater than the offline risks of anyone promoting their use by minors (although there may be more of this information online than is easily accessed by our children offline). The other group of sites sells these things online to anyone who wants to buy them, including children.
Sites That Promote Their Use
Some alcohol, tobacco, and gun sites are set up by the manufacturers of these products. Other sites, such as those that promote drugs and poisons (generally for assisted suicides), are set up by people who advocate their use.
manufacturers have stated that their sites are directed at adults who may
legally consume their products, and not at children, but we need to recognize
that these sites are often accessed by children.
(Many child-protection groups believe that children are even being targeted by some of these companies.) But whether these companies intend to attract children to their sites or not, our children need to be educated about the dangers of drugs, guns, poisons, alcohol, and tobacco.
What Can Parents Do About It?
Education and values enforcement are the best defense against this kind of information—online and off. You may already have educated your children thoroughly on these topics. Ask them. You might be surprised how much they already know. If you think you need more help than education can provide, most of the filtering products block access to drug, alcohol, and tobacco sites.
Sites That Sell These Things to Kids
thousands of sites that sell alcohol online. You can do a quick search on any
search engine that isn’t a filtered or kid-friendly search engine (alcohol
sites tend to be filtered at these search engines) and pull up hundreds of
sites that sell wine and other alcohol online. Selling online has become a
popular mechanism for small wineries
that can’t afford large distribution networks
to market across the country.
While it’s very easy to find sites that sell alcohol and tobacco online, it’s a bit harder to find those that sell drugs (usually these sites sell only prescription drugs being sold over-the-cybercounter, like Viagra and weight-loss medications, although some sell drug paraphernalia) or guns online. It’s even harder to find controlled substances and illegal drugs and poisons, such as cyanide (although one site that facilitated suicide in Japan was selling some), for sale online. But they’re there, and kids armed with money or credit cards can buy them as easily as adults can.
A couple of years ago, a mother opened a package shipped to her son and discovered a semiautomatic weapon he had ordered online. He had charged it to his parents’ credit card. (I have no idea what he thought would happen when the bill arrived.) And your children could do the same.
What Can Parents Do About It?
You need to recognize that the alcohol and drug sites, unlike some of the other riskier content sites, aren’t targeting kids. They are targeting adults—for example, wine connoisseurs looking for smaller and unique vineyards, and patients with erectile dysfunction or weight problems looking for prescription medicines.
For the most part, kids aren’t buying these products online. Alcohol and tobacco products tend to cost far more online than the over-the-counter alternative (assuming the kids can get some adult to buy it for them or obtain a fake ID).
But in order to make sure children aren’t buying anything from any of these sites, parents should check your credit card and bank statements closely, and make sure you are there when packages are opened (or, make sure your kids show you what they have ordered).
Are We Raising Future Riverboat Gamblers in Cyberspace?
There is no doubt that the Internet is an equal opportunity vice provider. And gambling hasn’t escaped cyberspace any more than the other vices have. In fact, gambling is thriving in the Internet arena, even while facing strict governmental controls elsewhere. (The sites are illegal in the United States if they offer gambling to U.S. residents without being properly licensed.) Most of the gambling sites are hosted offshore, which makes law enforcement more difficult. They require prepayment in the form of credit card advances, debit card advances, or wired funds. A simple search on any of the search engines will result in thousands of gambling sites. And your teenager’s money is as good as anyone else’s.
Frankly, I was surprised that kids are using the gambling sites as much as they reportedly are. But with more and more children having their own credit card on our accounts for emergency purposes, as well as generous allowances and access to savings accounts that hold their birthday cash, baby-sitting earnings, and paper route money gathered over the years, it’s apparently easier than ever for them to gamble it away. Sometimes they’ll even use our credit card and hope we don’t notice when the statement arrives. (And, surprisingly enough, we often don’t.)
What Can Parents Do About It?
Keep an eye on your credit card statements and on your children’s savings account balances. Blocking their ability to send out credit card information over the Internet might make it harder for them to gamble online. (Some of the filtering products allow parents to block certain outgoing information.) In addition, if the computer is centrally located under your watchful eyes, you may be able to keep them out of the gambling dens entirely.
Also, teach them that the only people who make money on gambling are the gambling site operators themselves. (I represented casinos for years, and I know how profitable gaming can be for the gambling establishment.) Let them also know that many of the gambling sites are scams, and many hold on to your winnings under the guise of international currency laws. Gambling online is a no-win game, especially for children and teens.
Flaming, Harassment, and Cyberstalking
Sometimes, largely because they feel that they are anonymous (hiding behind their computer screens) and because they have a captive audience, people say things online they would never dream of saying to someone’s face. They also do things they would never dream of doing in real life. When these messages are directed at our children, we are understandably concerned, and our children may have their feelings hurt—deeply. They range from insults (flaming), to creating fear (harassment), to credible threats of actual harm offline (cyberstalking).
Flaming is cybertalk for when people say mean, insulting, rude, or provocative things online to others. Sometimes these are just rude people; other times they are people who want to incite arguments online with others or among others. Some people will post an insulting or provocative remark in one group while pretending to be a member of an opposing group, just to create an online fight. It’s interesting to note that many flamers would never dream of behaving this way offline. They often consider it harmless fun.
What Can Parents Do About Flaming?
Many parents who have been online for a while have worked out ways of dealing with abusive or vulgar messages (flames) that are sent to their children. One of these parents, Bill Bickel, has several personal websites where he highlights stories about his children. (His websites can be found at www.bickelboys.com.) He posted the message below at his site to help other parents deal with flaming directed at their children. Bill wrote it referring to messages received in connection with his children’s sites, but it applies equally to e-mail messages or chatroom flaming. It is reprinted here, with his kind permission. It’s good advice, and I suggest following it (whether your child is on the receiving end or on the sending end):
“[Sometimes people send our children] inappropriate, vulgar, or even abusive messages. Aaron’s received one of each. Of course, we all prescreen our kids’ e-mail, but it’s still upsetting to think that somebody’s sending our child this sort of thing. The fact that it’s probably just another child doing it isn’t much comfort, because it isn’t a physical threat we’re worried about. (The abusive mail Aaron received came from Australia. We live in New Jersey.)
My suggestion is: Don’t ignore it, and don’t wait for a second message. The next message will probably get sent to another child. This sort of thing should be stopped immediately. Send a copy of the message to POSTMASTER@whatever.com, adding, simply, “Please do something about this.” I did this twice, and one account was shut down and the other was suspended (the account holders’ little darlings had done this sort of thing before). For good measure, I cc’d my messages to the account holders, leaving the subject blank (so the kids wouldn’t be alerted and try intercepting them).
For the message that was merely inappropriate, I just sent a copy of the original to the account holder, again deleting the subject. We received an apology within 24 hours, and a promise that their teenage daughter would not be sitting in front of the computer for some time.
Your older children and teens should be taught to report the flame or ignore it. They shouldn’t get involved in a flaming war, no matter how tempting it may be. These things escalate fast, and get out of control quickly. Even if you don’t take the action that Bill Bickel did, you should try to screen e-mail so that you can intercept hurtful messages to your younger children. Then make sure that your child doesn’t take the insults to heart. Let them know, and help them remember, that what this person says to them or others online isn’t worth paying a second’s attention to. It’s not easy, but we have to help them develop thicker skin if we are going to allow them to spend time online.”
Harassment and Cyberstalking
But many people don’t stop at just insulting you or your children. They may make death threats, hack your computer, or send you viruses. They may track your children online, using buddy lists and ICQ technology, and say nasty things about our children to others in chatrooms our children frequent. They may post terrible things in guestbooks on our children’s sites, or sites our children visit. They may pose as our children, by using remailer and alias technology (that allow people to appear to be someone else or mask their identity online), and say and do things that get our children into trouble.
It can get really ugly. Sometimes we have to get their ISPs involved, and it might even warrant getting law-enforcement agencies involved, especially if there are threats relating to offline dangers. Always take these things seriously.
What Can Parents Do About It?
I’ve written an extensive analysis of cyberstalkers, and what to do if your child is stalked or harassed, in the “ ‘Leave My Kid Alone!’—Cyberstalking and Harassment” section of WiredPatrol.org and WiredKids.org. But teaching your child to follow the rules of online etiquette (“netiquette”), and to stay out of more volatile chatrooms and discussion boards, may prevent most of these problems. Not including a guestbook or personal information in their personal websites can be a big help, too. They should also be taught never to respond to harassment or threats they receive online. Ignoring them is often the best way of getting them to go away. You can also use software or parental controls to block incoming e-mail from unknown senders, or to filter out e-mail from a particular sender.
One of the biggest problems with cyberpredators is that they operate in your home. But improving your alarm system and adding better locks won’t keep them out. They enter your living room (or your child’s bedroom if you ignore my tip to keep their computer in a public place) through your computer. Your children feel safe in their pajamas and slippers, with you seated a few feet away watching television or reading. Therefore, people who converse with them while they are in this “comfort zone” are safe, too—as safe as any invited guest in your home.
Cyberpredators count on this sense of security in lulling your children into letting down their guard. There is a sense of intimacy online that cyberpredators take advantage of to convince your children that they are not strangers at all.
What Can Parents Do About It?
It’s your job to teach your children that these people are strangers, no matter how friendly they sound. If you’re close at hand when problems arise, and make it a point to get to know their online friends, the cyberpredator’s task will be much harder.
Protecting your children online is like buying an antitheft device for your car. Although it can’t completely prevent thieves from stealing your car if they really want to, you may have made it hard enough that they go somewhere else. (And if all parents do the same thing, the cyberpredators will be out of luck everywhere.)
Our children too often believe what others tell them. And when they want to check it out, they go to online profiles posted by the cyberpredator. It’s like the old adage “you lie and I’ll swear to it,” but they can lie and swear to it all by themselves. We need to teach our children not to trust so easily. It’s a sad, but necessary, lesson.
Our children have already been taught stranger-danger techniques, but nice people aren’t strangers—only hairy, smelly, and dirty ones are. Ask your child to describe a stranger, and you’ll see I’m right. (Unfortunately, most cyberpredators don’t fit that description at all. Most are educated and successful men.)
The Big Three . . .
The topic of cyberpredators and cyberstalkers is very important. Additionally, there are two other risks to discuss, ones I consider very important and which require more than common sense to fully appreciate. These are risks to privacy—including marketing that requires your children to divulge personal information about themselves or your family—and commercial risks from unfair online marketing and cyberscams.
Risks Your Kids Pose to Others—Including Parents
Since we’re here to discuss risks and how to avoid them, we need to warn you about the dangers your children (and their friends) may pose to others in cyberspace. They may give out credit card information, share private information about you and your family, infringe copyrights, commit computer crimes, and lose or destroy your files. In some cases, they may not even know they’re doing it, but the dangers are just as real.
“Because I Can”—When Kids Act Out Violent Fantasies Online
All kids act out fantasies online, pretending to be someone or something they’re not. But sometimes they act out violent fantasies online, too. Twenty seventh-graders sat quietly in the library, not quite sure who I was or why they were seated there. I looked around at the group. These were typical suburban, well-mannered kids. They lived in a town with good schools, safe streets, and PTA bake sales. I didn’t expect any surprises.
I asked them how often they used the Internet and what they did online. Each responded that they used it daily. Most admitted to chatting online, surfing music and sports sites, and sending instant messages and e-mail to friends. Some had set up their own websites. I received typical responses to my typical questions.
Then I asked them what they did online that their parents wouldn’t want them to do. (I am always amazed how many kids confess outrageous things to me, just to be helpful.) That’s when it got interesting. A few kids admitted to setting up a website that made fun of an overweight girl in the school. They told others in school about the site, and the girl was very upset, understandably. They put up a fake profile on AOL, pretending to be her. (These kids had way too much time on their hands.) A few others admitted to using a parent’s credit card to access adult sites. (It had somehow never occurred to them that a bill would eventually arrive for the pornography service.) Some had been thrown off AOL for using vulgar language or provoking fights online. But the one story I will always remember was from a soft-spoken, shy and intelligent boy, with sandy-colored hair. He was a top student, the kind of kid you knew never got into trouble. He raised his hand and confessed to sending out death threats via e-mail. This got my attention quickly. We talked a bit about his life. He said that he doesn’t get into trouble in “rl” (real life, for us non-geeks). His homework is turned in on time, and he comes straight home after school and listens to his parents. But he sends out death threats online. When I probed more, he said that he would never do anything wrong, because he’s afraid of getting caught and getting into trouble. He also likes being a “good kid.” He thought that it might be fun to act out his fantasies online. He also was convinced that he couldn’t get caught. When I asked him why he did it, he said simply, “Because I can.” He is a good kid. He’s the kind of kid that you’d want your children to be friends with, the one we refer to when we say “Why can’t you be more like . . . ?” He never forgets to say please or thank you. He’d never dream of threatening anyone offline. But online he’s not a well-mannered honors student. Online he’s the tough and violent kid he always fantasized about being. He plays at being someone else. It’s the cyberspace version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And he does it from the safety of his bedroom, after his homework is finished. The only problem is that when a death threat arrives via e-mail, the recipient doesn’t know that this innocuous honors student sent it—to the recipient, it’s a serious threat. It’s also a serious threat when law enforcement traces him to his house and knocks on the door.
“Dear Jennifer, I am going to kill you.”
WiredPatrol.org, we help cyberstalking victims find their stalkers and
prosecute them. They usually come to us when they are already hysterical with
fear. One case, where the stalker threatened to kill a terrified mother and her
teenage daughter, became a personal quest for Kelley Beatty, my deputy
executive director and
then head of our cyberstalking team.
The mother sent us a frantic e-mail. She had been stalked online. The stalker threatened to kill her and her daughter. The stalker also knew personal details about her—offline details, such as her address and full real name. He also knew her telephone number. She had already been to her local police, but they didn’t seem to take her fears seriously. She was afraid for her safety and that of her teenage daughter. She had missed several days of work, and was under medical treatment for the stress.
It didn’t take Kelley long to figure out how the stalker had this information about the mother. She had included it in her ICQ profile. Getting her telephone number was as easy as accessing the White Pages online and looking her up, using the name and address she had voluntarily supplied to the world—and her stalker. She had also mentioned her daughter in chats, and the stalker apparently had picked up this information. (The mother was immediately advised of this, and removed the personal information. Kelley taught her how to surf anonymously.)
When an online stalking reveals that the stalker has offline information, the case is taken very seriously by us, and should be taken very seriously by law enforcement. Kelley stepped up the investigation. Luckily, the stalker had left a trail of personal information as well. This allowed Kelley and her cyberstalking team to identify him easily. Kelley contacted the stalker and confronted him with the fact that WiredPatrol.org knew who he was, and that what he had done was a crime. He lived in Canada, and the victim lived in the United States. But it’s against the law in both countries. (I warn parents not to do this yourselves. Don’t contact the cyberstalker. It almost always escalates the stalking. Instead, contact law-enforcement, groups like WiredPatrol.org or their ISP for help.) He immediately was contrite. He admitted that he was a teenager and was just fooling around. He thought it was fun to try to scare people, and didn’t consider it a serious problem since he had no intention of acting on his threats. He promised never to do it again. Kelley shared this information with the victim, who called the home of the stalker. (Again, I advise against doing this.) His grandmother answered and immediately understood the seriousness of her grandson’s actions. The victim and Kelley were both satisfied that the matter would be dealt with appropriately, and didn’t think that legal intervention was necessary.
When Kids Hack and Commit Computer Crimes
Some children, armed with powerful computers, have proven themselves very good at manipulating others’ computer systems and cyberspace. They are breaking into other computer systems, sending e-mail, and pretending that someone else sent them (remailers). Because they do this from their home, they think they are anonymous. Many don’t understand how serious these activities may be.
There are two major types of hackers: those who do it for fun and glory, and those who do it for financial gain or to hurt others. Many kids fall into the first of these two types. They take pride in being the ones to break into the CIA computers or take over the New York Times site. They hang out in private rooms you can’t find unless you are highly skilled as a hacker. It has become an Internet “badge of courage” to be known as a hacker. But the biggest part of the problem is that hackers are considered the heroes of their Internet generation even by some adults who should know better. According to Fortune, a manager at Panasonic said that hacking is how computer experts learn. “You break into programs, commit piracy, all kinds of wild and crazy things.” (“Who’s Reading Your E-mail?” Fortune, February 3, 1997.) The fact that adults who are computer experts can classify these acts as “wild and crazy things” is the essential problem.
Kids don’t understand that hacking is a crime, and a serious one. (Frankly, neither do many adults. When I was giving a television interview about the capture of the Melissa virus perpetrator, several “men in the street” who were interviewed commented that he would make a fortune for some major computer company as soon as he is released from jail.)
Sending viruses to others is considered a hacking crime as well. Anyone who has ever had a file or computer infected with a virus can attest that having a virus can be heartbreaking in the amount of information lost, but too many kids don’t take it seriously (until they have been victimized). Some kids will send each other viruses the way our generation made crank calls and sent anchovy pizzas as a spoof to our friends (and often to our enemies and the cranky old woman down the street, but that’s another matter).
At the first White House Summit on Children and the Internet, several kids were assembled on the stage to talk about how they use the Internet. One young boy said that he used it for sending e-mail bombs (e-mail bombs occur when so many e-mails are sent to your e-mail box at once that your e-mail system crashes), among other things. (Since few people understood what an e-mail bomb was, the audience laughed instead of reacting appropriately.)
Although it rarely happens, some kids will destroy a site or commit a financial hacking crime. They may not be thinking about the risks involved in serious hacking, but hacking is nevertheless a very serious matter. The FBI estimates that financial losses from computer crimes run over $10 billion per year. What’s even scarier is that a vast percentage of these crimes, according to FBI estimates, go undetected. Several years ago, new laws were passed making it easier to prosecute hackers. More and more frequently, law-enforcement groups are using these laws to charge kids with Internet-related crimes.
Men in Black
A woman I know shared a story with me recently about several “men in black” who appeared at her door asking for her son. It appears that he was one of the first hackers who had developed a program that broke credit card codes. No charges were ever brought, and he always denied misusing his program, but this mother has never fully recovered from the visit to her house by the U.S. Secret Service. We laugh about this today, and her son is a well-paid computer specialist, but it was frightening at the time. Even so, kids tend to think that they will never get caught. While that might have been true a few years ago, it’s not true any longer.
What Can Parents Do About It?
It’s our job to teach our children not to hack or commit other computer crimes. In order to make kids understand how serious hacking is, they need to identify with the victim, since to them hacking is a victimless and faceless crime.
If you try to “bring it home,” showing your kids how horrible it would be if a hacker got into your computer at work and destroyed all the work you’d done, or got into your home computer and destroyed their files or their favorite websites, they may be able to appreciate the seriousness of the crime.
Last year, when I was speaking to a group of students and their parents, a fifth-grader lamented the loss of all of his games, and his research for a report, when his computer had been infected with a Trojan horse. All the kids took this story to heart. No one joked about hacking or viruses. It was the most effective session I had ever given, thanks to this one boy. It brought the story home.
You should talk to your kids about hacking. Let them know how serious it is. Schools may want to have local and federal law enforcement officers come and talk to the kids about hacking crimes. Schools should try to spot the budding hackers and give them productive challenges for their hacking urges. Parents should realize that keeping an eye on their children’s computing makes it a little harder for them to commit computer crimes.
Look over their shoulders from time to time, and don’t put the computer in their bedroom. Keeping the computer in a central family location is one of the best tips I can share with you. If your kids, huddled together in front of a computer, suddenly get quiet when you walk into the room—beware!
(Remember what I told you: This isn’t any different from parenting them offline.)
On the Other Hand . . .
But not all “hackers” are bad. Hacking originally meant that you had excellent networking skills. They were the ones who built the Internet and made it work. Many of these “hackers” offered to assist in finding and ferreting out terrorist communications online following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. They are an important part of Homeland security and protecting the U.S. from cyberterrorism. Many kids with hacking skills are being recruited to become white-hat hackers . . .which means they turn their skills toward helping, not hurting. They may find holes in computer security systems, and even help their schools find and investigate computer break-ins.
Sticks and Stones—Defaming Others Online
Sticks and stones will break their bones, but words will never hurt them—right? Wrong! While the First Amendment gives us the right of free speech, it does not give us the right to say false and horrible things about others. In the United States, someone whose reputation is damaged by a false statement made by another can sue that person for defamation. (Libel is when the defamatory statement is written, and slander is when it is spoken.) Under rare circumstances, such statements may rise to the level of harassment, generally considered a crime. Unfortunately, since the advent of the Web, many kids are taking their grievances to the public, online. They are building defamatory websites and posting defamatory comments online. While initially the victims of the defamation ignored the postings and websites, they are starting to take action more and more frequently. Sometimes even the schools are trying to get involved, often to their detriment. (See the “Kids Online in Schools” chapter.) Our kids need to know that the online services and ISPs will provide their identity pursuant to legal process. And they can be found and sued for what they say online.
Hey! That’s My Intellectual Property!
Many people forget that the laws that apply on the ground apply equally in cyberspace. U.S. and international intellectual property laws and treaties protect copyrighted material, and copyrighted material doesn’t have to have been filed with the Copyright Office to be protected by the copyright laws. It doesn’t have to be labeled as “copyrighted” and doesn’t need the © mark. Under intellectual-property laws, if you write it and publish it, it’s protected against infringement.
Given the ease with which anyone can block, cut, and paste anything from any website, or download and save it as a document or graphic on his or her computer, people sometimes forget that anything more than “fair use” is an infringement. Our children need to learn to attribute material (using correct bibliographies), and not use more than a simple quote or two.
Recent changes in the U.S. copyright laws, to bring them in line with the world community, make copyright infringement a crime, even if the infringement was not for the purposes of making a profit. Many kids swap software, trading a copy of something for a copy someone else has of something else. The new law changes make this a crime. Although it’s unlikely that the FBI will start arresting our children in droves, it’s a risk that didn’t exist before.
and music industries have been very active recently, trying to stem the tide of
kids pirating movies and music online. But aggressive enforcement can have
embarrassing results in cyberspace. One in-house counsel for the Star Trek movies lamented
after finding out
that she had sent a cease-and-desist letter to an eight-year-old. Our kids have
become very good at using the available technology to pirate media. And it
doesn’t stop with media. Kids pirate software all the time, often without
thinking that it might violate the law, or be considered stealing.
If we teach our kids how terrible they would feel if someone ripped off their designs, they might do it less. (But in view of the number of college students I hear are buying term papers online, this might be a hopeless proposition. We need to take some quick and radical action to teach ethical behavior.) Teach your children to respect others’ property, even if it looks like it’s available for everyone to use freely. The Internet works because people are willing to publish proprietary information for public enjoyment and learning. It’s important that the rights of those people are protected, or the flow of information might slow—to everyone’s detriment.
Risks to You from Your Kids and Their Friends
So far, we have focused on protecting your children from others in cyberspace. But dangers exist to you and others as well. And these dangers may be caused by our children and their friends, whether inadvertently or intentionally.
Pranks That Can Cost You Your Internet Account
All of the Internet service providers and online service providers, such as AOL, have their own rules. Often referred to as the “terms of service,” or “TOS,” these are contractual arrangements with you, as a user of the service. If you (or anyone using your account) break these “house rules,” you risk losing your account.
One of the favorite pranks of teenagers is accessing someone else’s account and making up funny or provocative profiles. Many teens share their passwords openly with their friends. One teenager laughingly told me that she had used her friend’s password to access her friend’s account, and had changed her profile to say that she wore a 38DD bra size and was looking for a boyfriend. Her friend hadn’t noticed until she started getting lewd e-mail from strangers who had accessed her profile. The friend had to change her screen name to avoid the harassment. I can only hope they both learned from this.
Parents should warn their children not to share their passwords with anyone. Also, they should warn them not to perform pranks like this using anyone else’s password. Had this prank been reported, the girl would have lost her (and her parents’) account, and her friend might have been very seriously harassed or stalked online.
If this doesn’t sound like something one of your children would do, remember that other people’s kids can create problems for you, too. Remember that even if you trust your own kids not to break the rules, you need to be able to trust their friends, too. Their friends may be using your account when they visit—friends who may not know your rules, or if they do, may not follow them. I wish I had thought of this before learning the hard way myself.
When I hosted several boards in an AOL legal forum, I was expected to be online regularly, monitoring activity while policing my boards. One night, when I tried to log on, I learned that my account had been closed. I was told that someone had violated AOL’s terms of service. Not able to reach anyone in AOL administration in the evening, I had to open a new account just to get online. The new account didn’t have my board tools, so I couldn’t police the discussion boards. I was angry, and my forum suffered. It took days to get things sorted out, and all my e-mail was returned to their senders during that time. Apparently, friends of my daughter had been over and had used my AOL account to get online. These kids had gotten into a flaming match in a teen chatroom, and when their bad behavior was reported to AOL, my account was closed for violating the terms of service.
When Kids Use Our Credit Cards to Buy Things Online Without Our Okay
A close friend of mine, one of the first cyberspace lawyers in the United States and very tech-smart, called me complaining about his children. Apparently they had found his credit card information stored in a computer file for his easy access. They called their friends and together ordered a big-screen TV and surround-sound system from a vendor on AOL. Luckily, AOL staff, noticing that the delivery and the billing addresses were different (the kids were smart enough to have it delivered down the street to their friend’s house), called to confirm. My friend was able to cancel the order before too much damage was done.
Knowing a lot about computers doesn’t always prepare you for what your kids, or their friends, will dream up next. Remember that. And keep an eye on your credit card statements, and don’t store this information on your computer or where it can be easily found (and misused) by your children.
Attachment to Comment by Parry Aftab, Esq. (WiredSafety.org, WiredKids.org, WiredPatrol.org and Cyberlawenforcement.org)
The 800-Pound Gorillas: The Big
Four Multifeatured Products
Comparing the Products
The big four products are Cyber Patrol, CYBERsitter, Net Nanny, and
SurfWatch. (SurfWatch and CyberPatrol are now owned by the same company.)
The chart set out below is out of date as to the versions of filtering products now available, but show you how the features differ product to product. This is being redone by WiredSafety.org.
How We Conducted Our Review
and Testing of the Software
Which Software We
Selected for Which Testing
We selected four different brands of child-protection software for the
site-blocking and full-feature tests: Cyber Patrol (version 4.0),
CYBERsitter 99, Net Nanny (version 4.0), and SurfWatch (version 3.0). (All are now updated.)
We tried to select the most popular products, although many companies
refused to disclose annual sales or sales to date. As far as we can
judge, Cyber Patrol, CYBERsitter, Net Nanny, and SurfWatch are among
the most popular. Of the four, Net Nanny has been on the market longest.
It shipped its first product in January 1995. SurfWatch shipped its first
product a few months later. SurfWatch claims the most users (approximately
3.5 times as many as its nearest competitor). Cyber Patrol, though,
seems to have captured the online service market and is catching on with
certain ISPs. SurfWatch seems to be doing the same with the kids
market—filtered search engines and safe harbors and closed systems. Net
Nanny’s new product was reviewed in advance for
How We Conducted Our Testing
In order to test each software product, we installed them according to
the manufacturer’s instructions and used the default settings (the ones
that came with the software), rather than customizing the programs.
Each was tested on the same Pentium 200 MMX machine, with 32 MB
RAM and a 28.8 kbps modem. (Some product tests were double-checked
on a Pentium 133 machine, with 24 RAM and a 28.8 kbps modem.) The
computers all used Windows 95 as the operating system. The programs
were installed one at a time, and uninstalled when the test was completed
and before the next product was installed.
The same person conducted all the tests, with the exception of
running some of the programs through the site lists to see which they
blocked and which they didn’t. Each software was tested against sites
we selected at random based on their content. Eight categories of sites
were preselected, which included a list of good sites that used certain
trigger words like “sex,” “drugs,” et cetera, and seven categories of problematic
content, like bomb building, alcohol, tobacco, hate, violence,
sexually explicit, and satanic and cult. (A list of the sites used has been
provided to the software manufacturers so that they can review those
sites and take any action that they feel appropriate to either add them
to their blocked-site lists or remove them from the blocked-site lists.
In addition, random testing was done with each product, searching
for offensive sites (including topics other than sexual content claimed
to be blocked or filtered, using the default settings, like drugs and alcohol).
We surfed using each software, testing its effectiveness with
sites and links from those sites. The actual effectiveness rankings,
however, were done only with the test sites.
Drumroll, Please!!! The Test Results:
How the Big Four Performed
One of the biggest criticisms we hear about filtering and blocking software
is that they block innocent sites—that is, they over-block. We
tested the programs against a list of “good sites,” to see how often they
blocked innocent sites. All the products tested surprisingly well. Some
didn’t block any sites. Cyber Patrol blocked four, but two of these were
the Go Ask Alice sites from Columbia University that were recommended
by the American Library Association but were the subject of
some controversy because of the language and subject matter of their
frank sexual and drug-use discussions. These were probably blocked as
a result of complaints received after the controversy arose.
It was especially interesting to me that two years ago, when I tested
the same products (different versions, of course), they blocked a much
higher percentage of innocent sites.
Of the four, Net Nanny and SurfWatch performed best, and didn’t
block any “good sites.” CYBERsitter came in next, blocking only one (a
drug-education site). Cyber Patrol blocked four, three on health edu-
cation and one on drug education. But of the forty-five sites tested, very
few were blocked.
I think their performance is indicative of the length of time they
have been on the market and the breadth of experience they have. The
longer they have been on the market, the higher up they have climbed
on the learning curve. They’ve had more chance to interact with schools,
librarians, and parents, and their ability not to block innocent sites is a
direct product of their extensive experience. When filtering and blocking
is concerned, it’s less a matter of technology and more a matter of experience.
And these are the most experienced products out there.
Next the products were tested to see how many “bad sites” in various
categories were blocked.We tested them against a sample of bombbuilding
sites, alcohol sites, tobacco-product sites, hate sites, violence
sites, sexually explicit sites, and satanic and cult sites. (And if the site
had been removed prior to all products being tested against it, which
occurred occasionally, it was removed from the sample for all purposes.)
Here’s how they performed in each of those categories (with the shaded
statistics reflecting the best performance):
What Does This Mean?
We selected a very small sample of sites to test the products against.We
began with a sample of about twenty sites for each category, but several
sites were either inaccessible or shut down between the time the sample
was compiled and the testing was completed for all products.
This may not be indicative of how the products will perform on an
Internet-wide basis, but it is a good indication of which types of sites
they block best. SurfWatch blocked the most sites in more categories
than the others did. (Interestingly enough, SurfWatch blocked best in
our tests four years ago for my first book, A Parents’ Guide to the Internet, too.)
This testing is only a small sampling and may or may not be
indicative of the results of a larger sampling. Other groups have
conducted testing, and you might want to review those tests.
Be careful, though, since both Cyber Patrol and CYBERsitter have
informed us that their products do not work properly when installed on
a computer that has another filtering product installed, even if only one
is turned on. (Their product instructions, however, do not warn of such
a problem. I have suggested that they add that warning.) That’s why we
conducted our tests by installing and uninstalling the products one at
a time. We recommend that you do the same with your demos, if you
want to shop around.
Attachment to Comment by Parry Aftab, Esq. (WiredSafety.org, WiredKids.org, WiredPatrol.org and Cyberlawenforcement.org)
Baltimore County, Cont’d
Trevor Day School’s
Policies and Guidelines for Use by
All Members of the School Community
Trevor Day School provides a data and communication network,
TrevorNet, to facilitate communication within the School community
and between that community and the global community. Ready access
to information resources both in the school and outside the school
provides academic support and promotes innovation. Resource sharing
and communication both within the School and also with other educational
institutions broadens and enriches the learning environment for
students and faculty.
TrevorNet provides the same applications as are on each student’s or
faculty laptop: Microsoft Office, including Word, Access, PowerPoint, a
scheduler program, etc. TrevorNet also provides reference databases
such as the library catalog, electronic mail, word processing, multi-tool
software, spreadsheet, database, etc. In addition, through TrevorNet,
students, faculty and staff have access to the Internet.
Several million computers worldwide are connected via the digital superhighway
called the Internet. Every person using these connected
computers can communicate and share information. Over the past 20
years the Internet has become a common repository for text based data,
audio, still images, and video. The World Wide Web, a tool for finding information
on the Internet, has made use of the Internet easier and more
desirable. The Web has also made the Internet a new medium for publishing.
Anyone with a computer, the appropriate software, and access to
the Web can publish any information for world wide consumption.
Guidelines for Using TrevorNet and the Internet
TrevorNet is provided for the benefit of faculty, staff and students for
academic purposes. The following guidelines have been established so
that it can be used freely, safely, and efficiently.
Sharing Network Resources
The same respect for each other and responsibility for the consequences
of one’s actions apply on TrevorNet as anywhere else in the school. Like
any other school resource, computer resources are shared, so priority
should always be given to school assignments; and arrangements for
sharing time on equipment should be negotiated fairly. Do not interfere
with other people’s work. Do not waste shared resources. Do not use
language that is not appropriate in the school community.
Because school computers interact with TrevorNet in invisible but
carefully designed ways, it is possible to make destructive changes
without realizing it. No alterations should be made to the hard drives
of any school computers: don’t change settings, add or delete programs;
and don’t run programs from disks without permission of the Technology
Department. It is improper and illegal to copy programs, to tamper
with hardware, to alter files, or to enter certain areas of TrevorNet
TrevorNet, both within and beyond the school, is a rich forum for
debate. Its value lies in the meeting of many different minds. Harsh
disagreement and personal attacks are not an acceptable use of
TrevorNet at any time.
Respect the confidentiality of passwords. Do not attempt to sign on as
anyone else. Don’t share your password with anyone, or ask for anyone
else’s password. Change your password when you think someone else
may know it, and notify the Technology Department if you suspect
passwords are being abused.
The same rules of civility for speaking or writing apply to e-mail.
Language inappropriate in the school community is not permitted on
TrevorNet. Before you send an e-mail message read it over to be sure it
communicates the content and tone you want the receiver to read. Do
not send unnecessary mail that wastes the receiver’s time, and do not
use up paper printing out your messages unless you need them for a
Privacy is valued and respected in the Trevor Day School community.
However, TrevorNet storage areas are like school lockers in that the
school has the right to examine the contents of the file server and any
e-mail to maintain system integrity and ensure responsible use of the
system. In order to foster independent thought, creativity, and intellectual
development, the school will only examine files when there is
reason to suspect any activity or material that violates the school’s code
of conduct or the law. This includes criminal activity, material that is
obscene, material that is violent or actively encourages violent behavior,
plagiarism or violation of intellectual rights or copyright laws,
activity that endangers, demeans, threatens, or libels a person or
persons, and material that denigrates people based on gender, race, ethnicity,
disability, religious beliefs, or sexual identity.
Copyright and Plagiarism
Responsible users of information always acknowledge their sources,
both in formal and in informal communications. Use information from
the Internet in the same way you use information from any other
public, published source: tell where the information came from to show
that it’s reliable. E-mail messages are private, and may not be quoted
or sent on to anyone else without the permission of the original sender.
Plagiarism—using someone else’s words or ideas as if they are your
own—is never acceptable and can be illegal.
Trevor Day School provides access to the resources on TrevorNet and
on the Internet as an educational service. When used wisely these resources
can significantly enrich and transform learning experiences.
Freedom of access to the wealth of resources available on the Internet
outweighs the risks of accessing material that is questionable or offensive.
Each user of the Internet must recognize his or her responsibility
in accepting this freedom of access.
Communication on the Internet can reach far beyond the communities
in which Trevor Day School students and community members
normally find themselves. Do not share your last name, photo, address,
or phone number with anyone on the Internet. Notify a teacher or administrator
if someone you only know from the Internet requests
personal information from you or proposes to meet you.
Parents, students, faculty, staff and administration should be aware
Trevor Day School has no control over the content of the information
residing on other computers connected with the
Internet, or control over the identity of individuals having
access to the Internet. Parents, students, and the adult community
are therefore advised that connected computers may
contain material that is illegal, defamatory, obscene, profane, inaccurate,
abusive or threatening, racial or ethnically offensive,
or otherwise objectionable. The administration and faculty of
Trevor Day School do not condone or permit the use or viewing
of such material, and persons are prohibited from bringing such
material into the school environment.
Faculty/Staff signature Date
Student and Parent/Guardian Responsibilities
All students using TrevorNet or accessing the Internet through
TrevorNet must indicate that they and their parent or guardian
understand the responsibilities of exercising this access.
I have read the Trevor Day School Guidelines for Using
TrevorNet and the Internet, and I understand the failure to
follow them may result in loss of my network privileges and
possible further disciplinary action.
Student’s signature Date
I have also read these guidelines and understand the consequences
for my child of his or her failure to follow them.
Parent’s signature (if student is under 18) Date
This policy is based on policies provided by The Convent of the
Sacred Heart, New York City; Friends Academy, Locust Valley,
New York; and Bellingham Public Schools, Bellingham, Washington.