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Illustration by Emilio Rivera III.
"The response in Singapore has been incredible," says Parry Aftab of Cyberangles, a Net safety group. "[They] have realized that blocking off anything on the Net is counter-productive."

The Dark Side of Bambi
Nanny software can help, but Asians are learning that the best defense against cyberporn is education

Bantering with the Bots

Virtual chat companions are putting some humans to shame

Carol Mah fears cyberspace the same way some children fear the boogeyman. Out there in the blizzard of information, says the 36-year-old Singaporean housewife, are dark nooks and crannies offering salacious material she'd rather her two young boys never discover. "I know that they really like using the Internet," says Mah, "but I don't like the idea of them going to any site without me seeing what it is first."

Mah's is not the unfounded concern of an overly protective parent. Pornographic websites are as pernicious as weeds and just as twisted. As of last May, there were some 500,000 porn sites on the Internet pandering to just about any prurient interest you would rather not imagine. Last year, one quarter of American youths who went online strayed into areas that are supposed to be adults-only. Mah says she and her husband monitor their kids while they are using the computer, but it's nearly impossible to keep an eye on them all the time. "It would be nice to have some help," she says.

Help is at hand. Software programs designed to watch your kids' online excursions when you can't are readily available. While not foolproof, the programs aim to prevent — or at least discourage — access to XXX content. Programmers employ two basic techniques. "Blocking" software contains a list of offensive sites compiled by the vendor that won't allow a browser to link to the forbidden URLs. Parents periodically download updated lists from the software company. But some smut purveyors split the defense by switching addresses frequently. Moreover, with 160,000 new websites registered each month, some porn slips through the net.

Filtering software reviews sites as they are requested by the user, screening them for certain keywords. Most of these programs also allow parents to track which sites their children visit. Some can be configured to disconnect the modem or freeze the computer if certain keywords appear on the screen. The drawback: because of the vagaries of the English language, innocent sites get censored because they contain keywords the software considers likely to equate to porn. A 1997 U.S. government study on filtering programs concluded they block more than 90% of the material available on the Internet that might be of interest to children. "Family-friendly filtering does not seem very friendly," the report concluded. According to Peacefire, a filtering watchdog website, two of the most popular programs, CyberPatrol and SurfWatch, block roughly four acceptable sites for every pornographic site they find.

This is largely due to the software's methodology, which bans websites based on incriminating words, rather than the context in which they appear. It is a surprisingly flawed process. Plugging in "sex" as a keyword, for example, may block off pornographic sites, but it will also refuse access to any web page offering information on Sussex, England. Conversely, children searching for "Bambi" may indeed hit the Disney home page, but they will also encounter much that doesn't involve the doe-eyed cartoon character.

Complicating matters further, most manufacturers of censorware refuse to release their lists of blocked sites, making it impossible for parents to decide if their own restrictions match those of the companies. "It is the idea of censoring that is inherently flawed," says Bennett Haselton, webmaster of Peacefire. "Even if a 'perfect' censorware program existed, we still wouldn't support it, because this still promotes the belief that parents are always right."

A more troublesome issue is the degree to which politics determines which sites get blocked. Some particularly puritanical programs, for example, deliberately restrict any websites dealing with controversial subjects such as homosexuality and abortion.

Even software purveyors admit that there is a limit to cyber screening. PornSweeper, created by U.K.-based Content Technologies, tries to detect whether e-mail attachments contain pornographic pictures by analyzing how much of an image is skin and what shapes these "skin blobs" form. But, says managing director Alan Schaverien, at best it is only 85% effective: "There's often a very fine difference between a perfectly legitimate photo and one that is actually pornographic." And he thinks that censoring images both on e-mail accounts and on the Web, may be self-defeating. "For people who want to get around the system, there will always be a way," says Schaverien.

That's why education is key. Nothing beats teaching junior to be cyber savvy. Even traditionally censor-happy Singapore has realized that restricting Internet access is futile. The island republic's initial attitude towards the Web was to censor. Now, the government blocks only 100 sites. Instead, Singapore focuses on educating its citizens, with government-sponsored workshops on Internet safety. "The response in Singapore has been incredible," says Parry Aftab, executive director of Cyberangels, a New York-based volunteer organization dedicated to child Internet safety. "Singapore has realized that blocking off anything on the Net is counter-productive," she says.

It's a lesson that China has yet to learn. "China is unfortunately still moving towards censorship," Aftab says, "and as Internet use increases in Asia, I think they will find themselves increasingly isolated." Because the Internet was specifically intended to circumvent roadblocks, no authority — not even the Communist government — will be able to regulate where its citizens surf.

Parents can't play Big Brother either, but that is no cause for despair. With a little common sense, keeping your kids safe on the Net can be more than a virtual fantasy. For starters, it's a good idea to install your child's computer in a communal area of the home. "I don't want my sons to feel like they're alone when they're online," says Mah, whose computer is in the family's dining room.

Cyber-proofing the kiddies can reduce the risk that they are caught off-guard by anything that happens on the Internet. For example, children should be taught never to complete any online profiles, or to offer any personal information about themselves on the Web. They should also learn how to avoid online marketers, some of whom unscrupulously track children's online movements to determine their commercial worth. Even more valuable is parental judgment and presence. "Parents ultimately have to go with their instincts," says Aftab. "If they feel uneasy about what their child is doing online, they should just unplug the computer."

Mah is not quite ready to pull the plug, but in spite of all her efforts to stay on top of the cyber adventures of her children — she now plans to add censorware to her arsenal — she remains concerned. "I can't believe how many sex sites there are out there," she sighs. "I can't imagine my kids seeing that." The best Mah, or any other parent, can do is to make sure that when her kids do stumble into a taboo quadrant of the Internet, they are cyber savvy enough to run and tell mom.

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