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Friday, August 27, 2004

Family PC back-ups a must

It has never been more important - with new viruses emerging all the time, kids downloading all sorts of stuff, and hackers constantly finding new flaws in Windows. Say you've just returned from a wonderful family trip, put all the photos on your PC, erased your digital camera's card, and suddenly the hard drive implodes. Or the IRS audit guy decided to take up residence at your dining room table, and all your tax records were in Quicken on the PC that just got infected with a killer worm. See what I mean?

Fortunately, backing up is easy, and can be completely mindless after the first set-up (which simply requires picking the folders on the hard drive that need the back-ups). I use an online back-up service, which automates the process (every night between about 1 and 6 am). "The most common approach today is to back up the critical data files to a [writable] CD," says PlumChoice CEO Ted Werth. "I recommend backing up every other week if you have a reasonable amount of data changes or additions," e.g., new photos or revised resumes. Backing up to a CD can be automated by software like BackUpMyPC or Norton Ghost). "If you have important data and cannot bring yourself to be disciplined about the CD back-ups, the next best approach is the online back-up solution." An example is (see Google for more such services). Please check out my newsletter this week for more on this.

Anti-P2P momentum

The entertainment industry's anti-file-sharing effort is gaining support in government. In addition to RIAA lawsuits and colleges' incentives (see "P2P deterrents, incentives" in this week's issue), there is increasing activity on Capitol Hill and in the Justice Department (DOJ). First, there's the INDUCE Act, introduced this summer by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. Its passage was thought inprobable just a short time ago, but now the legislation has nine co-sponsors from both parties, Wired News reports, among them "two of Congress' most influential members: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota." Then there's the DOJ's summer crackdown on massive distribution of videos, music, and software via peer-to-peer networks, covered in the Washington Post) and many other media outlets. File-sharing was only part of the DOJ's "largest dragnet yet" against "cyber criminals," including "spammers, so-called 'phishers' and other Internet con artists," the Post reports in another article.

Self-published child porn

The term is chilling, but it's happening and parents need to know about it: teens sending their peers sexually explicit images of themselves and later finding them widely distributed on the Net. An example cited in the New York Times yesterday: an 8th-grade girl in the Bronx sending "a digital video of herself masturbating to a male classmate on whom she had a crush." The video "quickly appeared on a file-sharing network that teenagers use to trade music. Hundreds of New York private school students saw the video, in which the girl's face is clearly visible." But we all know this, right?: It doesn't stop with hundreds of local students. On file-sharing networks the video becomes "available to a worldwide audience of millions." It's downloaded onto those file-sharers' computer hard drives, to be shared whenever requested by other P2P network users around the world. It cannot be removed from the Net. Teens may already be aware of scary incidents like this. We hope. But it's unlikely they're telling their parents. So you heard it here and in the New York Times, if you read far enough down in Amy Harmon's thorough article on the growing cyber-bullying problem. Greater public awareness is needed, and experts are working on information for parents dealing with problems like this. I'll keep you posted on what's emerging. Meanwhile, if anyone you know has been confronted with situations like the ones in Amy's article, email me anytime. What they've learned may be helpful to other parents and teenagers.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Online safety: Filters or laws?

Now that the Internet's "the gateway to both the richest and the raunchiest of human expression," is legislation or filtering a better way to protect children? This Scripps Howard article does a good job of framing the debate that has tied US courts up in knots for years. The bottom line for parents is that - though filtering is undeniably flawed - it's better than nothing if you need a little help in keeping kids from seeking out the worst of the Web (if they obey a family rule to use only filtered search engines, they're not very likely to stumble on it - see "Searching with 'Mamma'" for safe-search examples). And for filtering software options and views, see "NetNanny failed" and my April 9 issue.

P2P deterrents, incentives

University students are probably among the 744 file-sharers targeted in this latest round from the RIAA, and universities are working on ways to keep them out of the fray. In addition to the 744, the RIAA (record company trade assoc.) is also suing 152 who have declined to settle out of court, The Register reports, making the total 896 and the grand total around 4,000. Meanwhile, more than 20 US colleges and universities are now providing legal music-downloading services and some two dozen more have deals with Napster and other providers in the works, reports Wired News, citing a just-released report from a coalition of universities and entertainment companies. And not only record companies are happy. Free downloading has become an attraction students look for in choosing schools, USAToday reports. "Penn State struck the first deal with Napster in January. The trial program was so successful that many other schools took notice. Now, when students return to school ... they'll find free, legal digital music as the latest amenity, alongside cable TV and campus concerts." Hmm, then there's the academic part!

Oz: Alleged student hate site

It's every school's nightmare these days: a hate site published by students about their teachers. A state education department in Australia will be investigating issues surrounding a site that "called for teachers to be executed, burnt or sent to 'Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.'It also called some teachers 'child molesters'," Australian IT reports. The site, alleged to have been created by high school students, was online for about three days in July before it was shut down. The New South Wales Education Department will review the suburban Sydney school's operations, its management, academic results, student welfare, inappropriate use of the Internet, and discipline.

'Don't talk to strangers': Doesn't work

What parents hear about the unthinkable - online child molestation - is not really accurate. A new study paints a very different picture from "predators who impersonate peers to befriend children and lure them into encounters that end in abduction, rape and murder," according to a study done for the American Psychological Association. The study, by the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, found that "most offenders did not deceive victims about the fact that they were adults interested in sexual relationships"; "the victims, primarily teens 13-15, met and had sex with the adults on more than one occasion"; "half of the victims were described as being in love with or feeling close bonds with the offenders"; "few offenders abducted or used force to sexually abuse their victims." In other words, these young people who are curious, fearless, and naive think their abusers are friends and - because of the Internet's anonymity - they often get too far in an online relationship to back down before the abuse occurs. Or they are "sexually liberated" and have decided they don't care. For more on this research and working with online kids, see my interview with Janis Wolak, one of the study's researchers and a Net-literate mom herself, covered in last June's "Rethinking 'stranger danger'," Part 1 and Part 2.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

What's music coming to?

Apple's iTunes is just about to have a new 800-pound gorilla of a competitor, and it may be sign of things to come for music fans in every household. "Microsoft plans to quietly launch the MSN online music store with the new version of its Windows Media 10 player," the San Jose Mercury News reports. Some 130 million PC owners will be introduced to the store, MS says, when they're prompted to update their media player software. "That's not counting the 300 million people who drop by the MSN site. The software giant also touts the music store's compatibility with nearly 60 digital music players. Not included in the list is Apple's popular iPod." The Windows Media system will use MS's new "Janus" digital rights management (DRM) technology, and it's Janus that gives us a window on what consuming music could be like in the future. In a commentary, The Register suggests Janus is all about control. "Janus was the Roman god of doors, and had two faces.... Janus here faces two ways, smiling warmly and solicitously at the content owners and vendors, and somewhat less convincingly at the consumer." On the one hand, Janus is designed to make the music subscription services like Napster work better with people's MP3 players (to the music industry, that probably spells less use of the free file-sharing services).

On the other hand, it also potentially reduces music fans' freedom. "Imagine," The Register continues, "a world where the flexibility of being able to buy a CD then play it where you like had been finally stamped out, where it was becoming 'illegitimate' to let your friends hear stuff you think they might be interested in, and where 'home taping' was getting progressively harder. And imagine a world where there was no online equivalent of the 'buy, rip, play where you like' model that's currently available to you. And sure, in that world people won't be able to grab whatever they want without paying for it from file-sharing networks.... It enables a New World Order where the content companies can impose a significantly more restrictive regime on consumers without negotiation." There are alternatives, The Register points out in a footnote worth noting.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Help for family laptop shoppers

Shopping for a family or student laptop? There's help in the Washington Post's "2004 Laptop Guide." Interestingly, Apple's iBook G4 won in the price department and got the silver medal for weight (beaten by Gateway's 200X by just 0.6 of a pound). Do I sound like I've been watching the Olympics a lot? Seriously, I always thought of Apples as pricey, compared to PCs, so this was pleasant news (my family is agnostic - we have both an iBook and a couple of PCs and like them all). The iBook's a little light on memory, but long on battery life. Five laptops were compared by the Post's Rob Pegararo, and Rob is good about factoring in family (not just workplace) interests, so this guide's worth a look if you're in the market.

Monday, August 23, 2004

IM-ers get 'spim'

More than 580 billion instant messages were sent last year. An estimated 400 million of them were "spim" (the IM version of spam, or unsolicited junk mail). This year the spim figure is expected to be 1.2 billion, according to research cited by the BBC. Instant-messaging is very easy for spimmers and believed to be more effective and more lucrative than spam because there's a higher expectation (or gullibility) among receivers that the message can be trusted. Which is why "there are fears that some people may be taken in by the spim messages because they think they are being directed to certain Web sites by people they know." This might be of concern to parents concerned about kids' exposure to porn. The good news is that there's an extra step with IM. Whereas an email can contain graphic images, with IM, a receiver has to click to the sexually explicit Web page. A BBC source recommends three tips, and we would add a fourth: Don't accept messages from strangers; don't download attachments from strangers; and keep all your PC security software up-to-date (anti-virus, anti-spyware, firewall, and Microsoft updates). Parents might also want to go through IM Preferences with their kids, weed strangers out of Buddy Lists and block anyone not on it. For details, see "IM Risks & Tips" from a dad and PC security company CEO in my 1/16 issue.