Monday, June 4, 2007 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Internet Safety Month, Part 3: Operating Systems and Web Browser Controls

This is the third in a series of essays about how parents can deal with potentially objectionable online content or contacts to coincide with "National Internet Safety Month." The first installment in this series outlined the many excellent online safety organizations or websites that should be the first place parents begin their search for assistance. The second installment discussed Internet filtering and monitoring tools and software. This installment will discuss how companies like Microsoft and Apple are integrating parental controls into PC operating systems and web browsers.

Microsoft’s “Vista” OS and Internet Explorer
The new Windows Vista operating system is Microsoft’s first version of Windows that incorporates embedded family safety tools. As Seth Schiesel of The New York Times reports, “With Vista, Microsoft has for the first time built a robust set of parental controls directly into the operating system, not just for gaming but also for Web browsing, file downloading and instant messaging.”

Vista lets parents establish “administrator” accounts and then oversee the individual users--namely, their own children--who are using the PCs. Parents can then configure the Vista sub-accounts to enable various parental control features and monitoring tools. They can turn on web filters that will block specific types of potentially objectionable website content or downloads. Time limits can also be established for the PC that restrict when or how long the child may use the computer.

Also, much like new video game consoles, Vista will also let parents restrict video game play by rating or title, and games with no ratings can be blocked entirely if the parents want. Parents can also see an “activity list” of the sites their child has visited, or attempted to visit, as well as files and applications that have been downloaded. Applications or software that the parents find objectionable can then be blocked from that same screen.

Importantly, once these parental controls have been enabled within Vista, there is no need for parents to configure additional controls within Internet Explorer. Vista controls all Internet Explorer web-browsing activities.

Finally, Microsoft has opened up “application programming interfaces” (APIs) to third-party software developers so that they can build additional parental control tools on top of Vista. One of these developers is IM Safer, which was discussed in my last post. A number of other add-ons for Internet Explorer also let parents add more layers of controls. Microsoft has created a webpage featuring all these parental control add-ons.

Apple’s Tiger OS X and Safari
Apple’s parental controls aren’t quite as sophisticated as Microsoft’s Vista-based controls. Apple’s Safari web browser adopts a white-listing approach to parental controls. Parents can establish which website children can visit by bookmarking them for their kids. All other sites will be blacklisted.

Apple’s Tiger operating system also allows parents to establish accounts for their children and control some of their online activities. In addition, parents can also build a restricted “buddies list” for their children and then disallow instant messaging to anyone else. The system can also hide the child’s online status so that only those pre-approved buddies can see that they are online at any time.

[In Part 4, I will discuss how website labeling and metadata tagging can help facilitate better web filtering.]

posted by Adam Thierer @ 8:01 AM | Free Speech , Online Safety & Parental Controls