Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Filters - Dynamic vs. URL List

I find this article to be quite ironic. To understand the irony, let me back up just a bit and explain the back story. A few years ago the Australian government decided that they wanted to step up their efforts to protect families in their country from the barrage of pornography that invades our homes via the Internet. Toward this end, they set aside some government money to purchase an Internet Content filter for any family in their country that wanted one. It was actually a great idea.

However, as is always the case, the devil was in the details, and success of this type of program is entirely in the implementation. At the time I was working as the Chief Technology Officer of ContentWatch, makers of the well-known NetNanny filter. We had just recently purchased the NetNanny brand and had changed the underlying technology from a purely list-based filter (i.e., blacklist of URLs, or web addresses) to a dynamic content analysis engine (i.e., the technology "reads" the web page and makes a determination based on linguistic algorithm whether to block or not). We were working hard on educating the industry to the fact that a list-based filter would not be able to keep up with the new URLs that would appear on the Internet in the near future. Of course, I am a bit biased, but I believe that we were ahead of the curve.

When we submitted NetNanny to the government entity that was selecting the handful of Internet filters that would be available through this program, we were found to block 97% of the URLs that the Australian government had found over the years to be pornographic. As we looked into the 3% that we did not block, we found that many of them were websites that were once pornographic, but no longer hosted illicit content - the content had changed, and our algorithm recognized that, and did not block the page. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the difference between a dynamic content filter and a list-based filter, in an effort to help them understand that a dynamic analysis of the content on-the-fly was better than a URL list. However, the rules had been set, and to be selected a filter had to block 100%, regardless of the content.

Now for the irony of the above story: NetNanny would have picked up the wikipedia change that is mentioned in the article, and would have blocked the page - because it looks at the content, not at the website address.

It seems that now, two years later, they are coming to the realization that a list-based approach is not the best way to filter the Internet, and they are now informing parents that a "watchful eye is better than filters". This statement is not entirely true - I would say that a watchful eye is just as imporant as a filter - and that a dynamic analysis filter is better than a list-based filter. Neither is perfect, and both have their weaknesses (the pros and cons of both are outlined in my forthcoming book entitled "Cyber Safety: Maintaining Morality in a Digital World").

It is certainly true that a filter will not block everything, and even that a dynamic filter will block some pages that it shouldn't. Nothing takes the place of a parents' watchful eye, but we need to be very careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater - filters have their place, and provide a needed initial blockaid to the filth available on the Internet - but parents also need to know that a filter is not a "set it and forget it" type of technology.

The bottom line: Every home with children should have a filter on thier Internet connection, but having a filter installed doesn't take the responsibility away from parents to stay involved in what their children are doing online.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cyberbullying case prompts new laws

Megan Meier may not be "patient zero" of a cyberbullying epidemic, but the strange twist associated with her case (i.e., that an adult was responsible for the bullying) has certainly caused her name to become synonomous with the plight of the cyberbully victims. Now, in another sad twist to this story, the woman behind the fake MySpace persona that tormented Megan may get off scott free, according to this article. This is simply more evidence that our laws have yet to catch up with the technological advances in cyber space.

When it comes to online behavior and the dangers associated with our children, cyberbullying is quickly becoming more of a concern to parents than online predators. If there is anything positive that has come from Megan's story, it is that it helped to bring cyberbullying to the forefront. Many states have enacted new laws to deal with cyberbullies, but there is still more work to be done.

As always, the more involved parents can be in their child's online activities, the faster they will be able to react to the clues of cyberbullying, and the easier it will be to prevent a tragedy such as Megan's. Know what your children are doing online, and who they are talking to - and what others are saying to and about your children. Watch for cases where your children may be cyberbullying others as well - young kids can be extremely hurtful in person, and the anonymity of the web only magnifies their bravado, causing them to say things online that they would never dare to say in person.

Cyberbullying is a real problem - with a real solution. While our lawmakers continue to strive to enact laws to protect victims of cyberbullying, may we as parents continue to get more involved in our children's online lives, and help them understand the line between harmless banter and hurtfull comments with real-life consequences.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Game Consoles = Unfiltered Internet

A game console is the kind of video game box that you connect to your TV, and either buy or rent DVDs to play on them. The most common examples are xBox from Microsoft, PlayStation from Sony, and Wii from Nintendo. Many people don't realize that most of these game consoles today have the ability to connect to the Internet, and could be a source of unfiltered Internet access within your home.

The primary reason that these game consoles have Internet access is to allow you to connect to someone outside of your home and play a game in real-time with them. While this has its own set of dangers (where do you think the predators are going to hang out, if they want to meet your children?), that is a subject for a future blog post. The danger I want to discuss today is the little-known fact (among parents, that is) that many of these consoles also have a built-in web browser which will use that same Internet connection to simply browse the web.

Yup- that's right - if your console is connected to the web, it is entirely possibly, even probable, that it is being used to browse the Internet, unfiltered by the PC-based filter you may have installed on the computers in your home. This doesn't mean that it is being used to see content that the filter would prohibit - but the possibility certainly exists. And, if you are using a PC-based filter, the activity from the game console would NOT show up in your usage reports either - it is a completely separate device that does not report its activity to your filter.

The good news is that most of these consoles have parental controls built in. Although you cannot install your own filter, you can set the console to allow the level of access you desire in your home.

If you have a game console in your home, check to see if it is connected to the Internet. Many of these consoles have the ability to disable the web browser while still allowing connections to others in the games, so don't worry that you are going to limit the "live" experience of interactive gaming, if that is what you purchased the console for. Of course, you can also close down the Internet connection completely from these boxes, and leave the gaming to those within the walls of your home, if you so desire.

Finally, remember that the parental controls on these boxes allow you to set the level of access that is appropriate for your home - use them! Set the parental controls to only allow the ESRB ratings that are appropriate for your family (see the ratings here). And, communicate with your children - know what games they are playing, with whom, and when.