There are lots of methods to keep kids safe on the Internet, all more hassle than they're worth.
By DAVID SHAMAH
My home office has been described as a "gleaming, hi-tech jewel."
Well, that's what I'd call it, anyway. I've got my Wi-fi routers here, video duplication equipment on the other table, two Macs (Intel, iMac and old-school Mac-Mini), a couple of PCs, a Linux server, and of course my trusty old HP laptop. Soon to be joined (if I play my cards right) by a gleaming new Intel dual-core Macbook running Mac OS, Windows XP and Redhat Linux!
Then there's the kids' computer. It's a 333 mhz Celeron running Windows 2000, with a 40 MB hard drive and a mouse that's been needing a lot of internal cleaning recently to stay usable. And, it crashes a lot, too - it simply is not up to the task of handling all the hi-tech tricks more modern computers are designed to cope with.
Somehow it just doesn't seem right, more than one person to whom I've pointed out the contrast has told me. How can I let my kids "fall behind," not having access to the best computer technology available? Aren't I afraid that they won't be as computer savvy as possible, having to deal with tech problems circa 2001 instead of having the opportunity to keep ahead of the computer user pack? And especially with a parent like me, who gets paid to write about tech, for G-d's sake?
The truth of the matter is that if I'm worried that my kids won't be able to cope in a hi-tech world, I'm a lot more scared of a more immediate concern - keeping my kids safe from the Internet badness that is now all pervasive. Just like on today's TV offerings, far different than the relatively innocent stuff I grew up with (the live-action Batman, circa 1966, comes to mind). There seems to be no escape from the ever more explicit banner ads, the suggestive (I mean sex, violence, and who knows what else) Web sites, programs, games, etc. and, of course, the ongoing and ever growing scourge of Internet predators.
There are lots of methods to keep kids safe on the Internet, and I've probably tried them all - only to find they were more hassle than they were worth. Filter programs (including some very expensive ones) are either not stringent enough or too stringent, requiring too much supervision to make their use worthwhile. Many sites that I felt were not in line with our family's value system get through, while legitimate research sites that the kids needed for school are banned. And it doesn't help to run a blacklist of "bad" sites since even the "good" sites have stuff I'm uncomfortable with. So far, the system that works best for me has been limiting the technical capabilities of the computer being used by the kids - if the instant messaging doesn't work too well, they're not going to use it too much, which means they'll have less opportunity to connect with "undesirable elements." But sooner or later, that old broken down PC is going to go the way of all hardware. Then what? The kids will clamor for another machine and even if I can get away with giving them another used PC, all the ones I have in stock are light years more capable than the one they've been using. They're good kids, but who said they can't be tempted to surf the wrong side of the street?
And what about me? Isn't it a bit hypocritical for me to surf on sites I wouldn't want my kids within 10 links of? True, I do rely heavily on the Internet for research, but any site I would check out should be something I would let my kids look at as well - and if it weren't, I have no business looking at it myself. Just like with spam, which I automatically ferry to a junk mail folder without even looking at, I would have no problem whatsoever limiting my own access to parts of the Internet I'm not interested in.
Haredim, as well as many modern religious and secular households here in Israel, as well as Christian families in the US, make a conscious effort to avoid Internet inappropriateness. Because of the difficulty of limiting bad content, most Haredi families avoid the Internet altogether, while families that do allow their kids to surf utilize a bevy of tactics similar to the ones I described above to keep their kids safe on-line. Like I said, though, these tactics are not foolproof, and it often seems that those of us who want to avoid Internet negativity are fighting a losing battle.
So here's an idea that I've been toying with, based on a worldwide growing movement of free wireless Internet access employed by community groups all over the world, such as the ones listed at http://freenetworks.org. The free network movement consists of groups of volunteer techies in communities throughout the world who aim to create local wireless networks, both open to the Internet and closed to member users. Users either have their own ADSL/DSL/cable connection, or connect to the Internet via high speed T1 or E1 dedicated line/lines, and connect to each other via a network of wireless routers. Within the network, users can access storage servers or play networked games at high speed, as well as connect to each other or the Internet in private homes or public spaces all over the area covered by the wireless network.
In some setups, each user is expected to have his or her own typical Linksys 802.11b/g type wireless router to provide line of sight connections to other users in the area. Other systems rely on more powerful routers strategically placed in high spots around the neighborhood. A complete how to on setting up a neighborhood-wide wireless network is available at http://www.air-stream.org.au/guides, the Web site of Air-Stream, a wireless system covering suburban and rural areas outside Adelaide, Australia.
Imagine a setup like this: A central server(s) would be connected to an outside Internet access line sufficient for a few dozen families (several apartment buildings, say, or a block on a city street). The server(s) would contain software for various services as well as a local routing table and a router for the local network backbone, which would be reinforced by nodes connected to the servers located around the service area. Services could include a searchable encyclopedia database, an MP3 server playing local Internet "radio," local or even broadband IP telephony services, a game server featuring content approved by system members, and local chat (i.e. the ability for kids to IM each other on the local network without having to worry about strangers getting their user names).
As far as Internet access is concerned, a committee of parents or other adults would sit and vote on sites that could be white-listed for network use and a single filter on the server would ensure that only approved content gets to user computers. And, of course, the wireless network could be encrypted so that only authorized users would be able to access it. The difference between a filtering system on a "closed WAN," for lack of a better term, and a NetNanny-type home filter, is that many of the services users want would be provided within the network itself. A local copy of an Encarta type encyclopedia could be sufficient for elementary school level "Internet research." Chances are that kids searching for information would seek out such a site on the "real" Internet - less outside surfing means users avoid bumping into banner ads or links they'd be better off avoiding. Ditto for local instant messaging - kids are usually interested in messaging school pals, who mostly live in the neighborhood anyway. And a game server with local kids is just as much fun as one that has users from the other side of the world.
If this sounds like censorship - well, it is. But, remember, this is a local system for families who decided to join voluntarily, self-censoring their Internet access because they want to. Would users of such a system miss the "real" Internet? My guess is they wouldn't - they'd be getting 90% of their former Internet experience using the closed network's services - and the cooperative could always vote to add access if it was necessary.
As far as Internet access itself was concerned, a high-speed E1 broadband connection would probably be better for this than an ADSL connection - it's faster and more reliable, albeit (much) more expensive. Bezeq quoted me NIS 2,500/month for a dedicated 2 mbps E1 connection (their fastest ADSL connection, 5 mpbs, is now NIS 99) - but split between 50 or so families, an E1 connection would provide plenty of bandwidth for the server to download services in their more limited form (i.e. Internet telephony, limited streaming radio, etc.) to local users.
Of course, renting an E1 could provide a speed boost and prove an access boon for families with full Internet access, especially if not all users were accessing the network at once. In a conversation I had with some Bezeq reps about what acquiring an E1 line for a community group would entail, I sensed a hesitation, no doubt due to lost revenues they foresee if many groups among their current ADSL user base were to adopt such a system. But to connect families, Haredi or otherwise, who otherwise would not even consider an Internet connection, I have a feeling Bezeq could be persuaded to make a deal.
Is this, finally, a solution to the "kosher" Internet? Maybe not, but a local managed network providing "safe" services to a limited number of users would seem to me to be a giant step in the right direction.
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