Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of talk in Washington again about regulating the Internet and online content. A proposal demanding extensive data retention requirements was reintroduced yesterday in the House. And the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), which would ban social networking sites in schools in libraries, was reintroduced in the Senate (S. 49) in mid-January. Additional regulatory proposals are certain to follow, including the inevitable bills on mandatory website labeling and age verification that seem to get floated every session.
Beyond the many First Amendment and privacy-related concerns these legislative efforts raise, it's important to realize that they aren't even necessary. There are plenty of ways for parents to handle this job themselves thanks the many excellent tools that industry and others have put at their disposal.
For example, just this week a coalition of companies and associations have launched "Project Online Safety" (www.projectonlinesafety.com) to highlight the many excellent steps they are taking to empower parents to protect their children online.
Coalition members include: AT&T, BlogSafety.com, Cable in the Classroom, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Facebook, Fox Interactive Media (MySpace.com), Internet Education Foundation, NCTA, Network Solutions, Qwest, Time Warner Cable and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). It's an impressive group and an impressive effort. Each company provides an overview of their online safety efforts and links to various resources parents can use to keep their kids safe online or educate them about online dangers.
Importantly, Project Online Safety is merely the latest of many excellent efforts along these same lines. I am currently putting the wraps on a major new study entitled Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods. (It's due out in late March or April). My goal is to provide the most comprehensive survey of the wide variety of parental control tools, technologies and methods that exist today. The problem is, there are SO MANY tools, technologies, controls and other things that I have struggled to know even how to catalog them all! The report just keeps growing and growing and at some point I'm going to have to just wrap it up so others can see it, even I haven't been able to include everything that's out there for parents.
So, I'll now be adding Project Online Safety to the growing list. Some of the other excellent sites or services available to parents that I highlight in the book include:
* GetNetWise.org (www.getnetwise.org) is a public service website operated by the non-profit Internet Education Foundation and supported by a wide array of Internet and computer companies as well as a host of public interest organizations and child / family activists. The GetNetWise website offers a comprehensive "Online Safety Guide" and lengthy inventory of "Tools for Families" that can be custom-tailored to the needs and values of individual families.
* Internet Keep Safe Coalition (www.iKeepSafe.org) is a coalition of 49 state governors and first spouses, law enforcement officials, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many other corporations and private associations (including many of the groups and sites listed below) dedicated to helping parents, educators, and caregivers by providing tools and guidelines to teach children the safe and healthy use of technology. iKeepSafe uses an animated mascot named "Faux Paw the Techno Cat" to teach children the importance of protecting personal information and avoiding inappropriate places on the Internet. The organization's website offers a downloadable "10 Common Questions about Internet Safety" pamphlet and several video tutorials to help parents set up various filters or controls.
* Net Smartz Workshop (www.NetSmartz.org) is produced by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. This comprehensive website contains web safety tips and educational materials for parents, kids, teens, educators and law enforcement officials. They also sponsor a site devoted to younger children (www.netsmartzkids.org) which features interactive online safety games and videos.
* StaySafe.org (www.staysafe.org) is an educational website sponsored by the Microsoft Corporation "intended to help consumers understand both the positive aspects of the Internet as well as how to manage a variety of safety and security issues that exist online." The site contains specific sections for teenagers, parents, senior citizens, and educators with tips and tools tailored to each group.
* i-SAFE Inc. (www.iSafe.org) is a non-profit foundation whose mission is "to educate students on how to avoid dangerous, inappropriate, or unlawful online behavior. i-SAFE accomplishes this through dynamic K-12 curriculum and community outreach programs to parents, law enforcement, and community leaders. It is the only Internet safety foundation to combine these elements," they claim on their website. i-SAFE receives federal grants to support these efforts. The organization produces several monthly newsletters, including one for parents ("i-PARENT Times") and educators ("i-EDUCATOR Times"), and sells a wide variety of printed materials on online safety issues for classroom use.
* WebWiseKids (www.wiredwithwisdom.org) is a non-profit organization "committed to teaching children and their caregivers strategies for safe Internet use, including methods of detecting and deterring online predators." It specializes in interactive software and games that teach kids how to spot online threats and deal with them promptly.
* Wired Safety (www.wiredsafety.org) bills itself as "the largest online safety, education and help group in the world. We are a cyber-neighborhood watch and operate worldwide in cyberspace through our more than 9,000 volunteers worldwide." The site offers educational services and online assistance and also reviews family-friendly Web sites, filtering software and other Internet services. Wired Safety also runs or works with several other affiliated online safety sites, such as: Wired Cops (www.wiredcops.org), Wired Kids (www.wiredkids.org), and Teen Angels (www.teenangels.org) and Net Bullies (www.NetBullies.com).
And list goes on. There are countless other excellent websites that offer parents and kids outstanding advice for how to stay safe online, including:
Net Family News, Family Tech Talk, ProtectKids.com, SafeKids.com, SafeTeens.com, BlogSafety.com, ChatDanger.com, Cyberbully.org, and StopTextBully.com. (Also, excellent examples of how other countries are dealing with the same issues can be found at Canada's BeWebAware.ca site, Europe's BeSafeOnline.org site, and Australia's NetAlert.net.)
Of course, whether or not parents are taking advantage of those tools and options is another matter entirely. But if, for whatever reason, parents are not taking advantage of these tools and options, their inaction should not be used to justify government regulation of the Internet or media programming as a surrogate for household / parental choice. Parents have been empowered. It is now their responsibility to take advantage of the tools and controls at their disposal to determine what is acceptable within their homes for their families.