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article imageInternet Safety for Parents Proposed by Facebook

By Sykos Masters     May 16, 2008 in Internet
Recently, Facebook announced that it had concluded agreements with several Attorney Generals in the U.S. to fortify security measures aimed at protecting children.
CNN reported the following, available here:
"Facebook, the world's second-largest social networking Web site, will add more than 40 safeguards to protect young users from sexual predators and cyberbullies, attorneys general from several states said Thursday. The changes include banning convicted sex offenders from the site, limiting older users' ability to search online for subscribers under 18 and building a task force..."
While these actions are laudable, they fail to address the full equation, i.e., all participants, of ensuring Internet safety for our children. In fact, these pronouncements have been repeated for approximately one week less than the length of time the Internet has been in existence. In almost all cases, they are the result of a very valid need to ensure and increase the safety and well-being of citizens of cyberspace the world over.
• Bullies, predators and 'pornographers' find loopholes around current restraints
• Parents realize, or suspect, that their children have been victimized
• The media 'reports' the latest outrage which causes an immediate response by various 'authorities'
• The technology sector responds by creating new safeguards
• Cyberspace, e.g., websites, ISPs, and web hosts, are forced to either comply or face prosecution
• ... wait a day / week / month / year ... rinse and repeat as necessary
The missing part in this arrangement is the personal responsibility of adults placed in care of the children. Parents, teachers and administrators in the education system, youth services workers, and various community social agencies also have a very important part to play. When the adults commit anything less that their full attention to this ever-present issue, they negate, or seriously diminish, the very results that members of the 'Internet community' are trying to achieve.
I believe there are two major obstructions in the path of caretakers in their attempts to be active participants in ensuring the safety of their charges: 1) a misunderstanding of how the Internet—cyberspace—is perceived from a security viewpoint, and 2) a reluctance to educate themselves regarding the various 'user friendly' tools that have been designed to help them in this battle. Hopefully, this guide will serve to decrease the effect of those obstructions.
A Change in Perception
We have been trained and educated to see the Internet as nothing more or less than a 'Global Library of Information'—dwarfing the ancient Library of Alexandria in both its scope and content. You have a question, desire, or need? Open up your web-browser and you can find the 'answer' with a short series of clicks. This is certainly a valid description of the general usefulness of the Internet, but it's a very dangerous view if one is concentrating on the security of this information and one's interactions with it. Content is not the same as containment, the container, or its location.
A more secure way of perceiving this new arena is as if it was a foreign country. The smart traveller—especially a parent—does not visit a new country without first doing some research: Do they drive on the same side of the street, what is the legal drinking age, does the hotel have a good reputation for children, are there parts of the country that are unsafe to tourists? Only after these questions have been answered does a smart traveller decide to venture to that country. The Internet is no different. To continue the analogy, the various resources that you are accessing or interacting with must be seen as travel agents (your ISP), ambassadors, local security, and tourist guides. Each of these entities have responsibilities and tools that are comparable to their place in the chain of activity; however, their commitment to those responsibilities and tools varies according to their own agendas and local regulations. Chances are most employees of your ISP, much like your travel agent, haven't even visited 99.999% of the vast Internet that you are being offered.
When you adopt this change in perception, you will realize some very important details. You are in fact your the leader of your own 'country'. You choose who or what has access, you control what comes in and goes out, you determine the length of stay and interaction with this foreign country, you have the power to educate, monitor, and share in the enjoyment to be had in Cyberspace. Nobody else can or should do this for you. To expect otherwise is foolish and irresponsible. As a last resort, you can always ensure complete security and privacy by not being connected to the Internet.
Assigning Specific Responsibility
As the recent actions of a social networking site prompted me to write this guide, I think it's appropriate that I use their own guidelines as a jumping-off point for determining who is responsible for who and what. Their safety advisory states, in part ....
“Facebook aspires to be an environment where people can interact safely with their friends and the people around them. We have implemented many safety and privacy controls on Facebook as part of our goal to enable people to share their information with only the people they want to see it. And we are constantly improving our systems for identifying and removing inappropriate content and people from the site.
Children under 13 years old are not permitted access to Facebook. In addition, parents of children 13 years and older should consider whether their child should be supervised during the child's use ...“
In my opinion, what then follows is the typical double-talk and non-committal verbiage that unburdens this site of any wrongdoing or responsibility should harm come to any community members under 13 years of age. The sad reality is that they have neither the time, inclination, or staff to ensure the safety of anyone further than the basic protections available to the public at large: e.g., offenders databases, blacklisted ISPs and domain servers, or any cooperative agreement that they may have with law enforcement. They actively encourage and rely on their members to aid in these controls. In short, these sites are no more or less safe for a child than any other site of their kind—Yahoo, Google, MSN—and must be perceived as such.
Once again, I refer you to your power and responsibility as only you have the ultimate authority.
How You Can Be Proactive—The Guide
1. Become informed and educated, stay informed and educated, update as required.
There are two common mistakes that parents make that are both rooted in a certain level of pride—they don't like to look 'stupid'. As a result, (1) one tends to rely on the software that came with a computer to 'just work' and when it doesn't do so, (2) one let's the children / teens in the house make the necessary corrections. We've all seen the TV commercial where a parent ruefully complains that “[Her] daughter knows more about computers .... and she's three ...”. While this may seem somewhat amusing on the surface, just think of the consequences were her child not three years old? How about if the child was thirteen, had emotional issues, an online boyfriend, and committed suicide because of rejection and online harassment? Not quite so amusing is it?
There is a vast array of sites designed specifically for the questioning parent. One needn't worry about feeling uninformed, as the same could be said for all the other parents that use those sites; rather, you could try and see these sites as resources. I've included a few to get you started—Find them, bookmark them, familiarize yourself with them, visit them often.
Child Internet Safety
Love Our Children USA
2. Ask the right questions from the right people.
There is nothing shameful about not knowing something. Whether you're buying a new computer, new software, or talking to your ISP, the usefulness of the information that you get is only as good as the person giving it to you. Most people aren't lucky enough to have a computer specialist in their immediate family; for those of you that are so lucky, this will seem like old-hat. For the rest of you, please read on as it's unlikely that 'helpful Uncle Bob', your child's friend, or your equally as unprepared neighbour is the right person to ask.
Don't make the assumption that the person selling you the product or service knows all that there is to know about it. If you have a relationship with them, then you should feel comfortable asking as many questions as you need to. If not, then ask to speak to someone more knowledgeable. Remember that you are the consumer and have the right to politely demand clarification and full disclosure as to your specific needs and the suitability of the product or service—this is as true for the local computer store as it is for one of the larger chains as it is for your ISP. If you haven't 'got the time' to ask these questions then you should either wait until you have or accept the responsibility for any consequences that follow. Remember that from the viewpoint of security this is 'undiscovered country' that you're about to travel in ... treat is as such.
3. Do not rely on your child to install, configure or update any security software.
It's really that simple. To do otherwise is like “closing the barn door after the horses have already escaped”. Assuming that you are using a version of Windows, the first thing you must do is remove administrator powers from any account other than your own on a family computer. If your child has his / her own computer, than you can only hope the level of trust with your child is sufficient to allay any concern over their interaction with cyberspace. If, on the other hand, you don't have this level of trust with your child then what prompted you to give them their own computer in the first place?
Install all security related software yourself. When I say 'install', I do not mean ... “Sit back, click the mouse when prompted, simply accepting the default settings.” I mean watch what is happening!! You can almost always refine the settings of any security program, but why save that for a later time when you're already taking the time now? Depending on the type of security feature that your software addresses, you may have several options available to you: e.g., allow / disallow web access, Internet gaming, chat, instant messaging, email, etc. You should limit your computer to exchanging only those types of communication that you currently need in your home. Don't plan for the future. If Tommy is only 6 years old and you'll be sitting near him—or in the same room—it's unlikely that he'll need to play online games, chat with his peers, or shop online. Trust me when I tell you that by the time Tommy is old enough to take advantage of these other interests, the technology will have transformed beyond what you currently recognize. The wonderful thing is that if you've involved yourself from the very beginning both you and Tommy will be able to grow together as the technology grows and transforms.
4. Use the technology to your advantage rather than letting it use you.
Would it surprise you to find out that the vast majority of truly abusive, unacceptable and corrupt information in cyberspace is not hosted in North America? In fact, its various 'homes' are in some of the most socially restrictive countries across the globe—as compared to Western standards. Pick a 'developing' or 'emerging' country on the map and you'll will likely have found one of the many places where the questionable websites are registered: e.g., China, southeast Asia, restrictive nations in Africa, eastern Europe. Given that North American standards and laws have absolutely no impact on the societies of those countries or regions, is it any surprise that all the regulations, edicts, and laws in the US and Canada have no effect on this content? There are innovative and very useful policies being created and adopted by the larger global community on a regular basis, but they have diminished force unless all players in cyberspace adhere to them.
As overwhelming as this may seem, there are a number of things that you can do to mitigate the effect that this content will have on you, your family, and your enjoyment of the Internet.
• a. Install a firewall; there are two basic types: hardware and software based.
'Hardware based' refers to equipment that you may have received from your ISP; it's sometimes known as a router, or (erroneously) bridge or switch. Chances are it came with a software installation CD. Use it! This is one of those opportunities that you have to control the type of content (protocol) that transmits between your computer and the rest of cyberspace. Once you're 'online', you have become a member of the Cyberspace Community. Try and keep that in mind.
'Software based' refers to products offered by McAfee ®, Norton (Symantec) ®, or many computer security providers. Buy one! Where hardware based firewalls concentrate on the manner in which content is transmitted, these products restrict access on a program-by-program basis. Once again, you will need to take some time and decide exactly which programs you feel should have access to the Internet. Remember that you are concerned with now, not possible future needs. In some ways, software-based firewalls are more user-friendly—than hardware firewalls—in that they prompt you to allow or disallow access for any new programs that you install. You have as much control (within the programs restraints) as you choose to exercise. Choose wisely.
Each of these options also allow you to go further and restrict access to and from your computer based on the registered numerical address (IP address) of any website or service. In order to take advantage of that, you'll need to access one further resource.
• b. “WHOIS”—Just as it says ... “WHO IS my computer is communicating with?”
There are several programs available that will enable you to find this information, but there is a much easier resource available to you on the Internet itself. You may have guessed the internet address by now, but I'll include it for convenience .... It may seem daunting at first so I've provided a brief tutorial on is use and effectiveness -- main screen
screen snapshot
C. Masters
Once you've arrived at WHOIS, you'll see a screen very similar to the one on your right. I've input 'lustybabes' into the field for the website that I'm researching. Be sure to type in the name of the website that concerns you exactly as it shows in the address bar in your browser. You'll also notice that the next field—where '.com' is—has a drop-down menu where you can choose any of the popular domain types (extensions) from: e.g., .org., .biz, .gov, etc. Next click on 'Go!' ... which will bring you to the next screen. -- registration info.
screen snapshot
C. Masters
Notice that at the top of the left shaded area is a list of similar domains with hyperlinks to perform the same query on them. As each of these domain extensions has certain restrictions on their use, you will sometimes find that different sites contain completely different content—although that's doubtful in this particular example. The right side shows your IP address (Requesting IP), who the request was made to (Requesting URL) and the site you're concerned about (Requesting Object). Directly below this you'll find a series of sections that give registration information about the website—much of this info has limited use to the average person. However, the next image shows a section that you should pay careful attention to.
At first glance, this section may make you feel a tad intrusive. Rest assured, this is information that is required in order to register a website. It's no more intrusive to look at this than it is to open up your phone book. Study it, learn it, remember it!! There are a few items that should catch your immediate attention. -- contact details
screen snapshot
C. Masters
The country code: CH — each country has it's own two letter code; this one is for Switzerland. It's also common for people that do not live in a specific country to, nonetheless, have their websites registered there. Different countries have different limitations and regulations on the kind of content that they allow to be hosted. The limitations of the countries mentioned earlier are rather 'relaxed' when it comes to pornography.
The registered owner: Andre Schneider — although this may be the name of the website owner, there is no guarantee for this. In this instance, the telephone is also registered in Switzerland—country code 41—although this is not always the case
• There are several subsections within this one, e.g., owner-c, admin-c, where each may have different information. For larger (and reputable) companies, this may be necessary as the technical staff may be in a different city from that of the corporate headquarters.
• Whenever a website lists “info@ ....” as their preferred contact email address, red flags, alarm bells, and sirens should be causing you the mother of all headaches. The vast majority of honest companies will have some version of a name as the contact email.
Final Thoughts
I sincerely hope that this information hasn't sounded overly critical or judgmental. That was not my intent. I do, however, hope that I might have both informed and scared you enough that you take action in protecting your children. Purveyors of age-inappropriate, pornographic, illegal or otherwise objectionable content will not concern themselves with your children. Your ISP, schools, libraries and other sources are constrained by manpower, local regulations, national Charters of Rights, and the immense volume of new content that enters cyberspace every second of every minute of every day. The government can't or won't do more than the minimum due to the same restrictions—in addition to appeasing other countries in the larger 'global economy'. Depending on the age of your child, he or she may not even understand the potential harm in this content, or may have already surpassed your knowledge of the Internet and considers it to be no great harm.
The only protector of your young is YOU ... as it should be.
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