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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

'Always online' families

Now, more American families have high-speed Internet connections than dial-up ones, reports Reuters, citing Nielsen/NetRatings research. "More than half of all US residential Internet users [63 million] reached the Web via fast broadband connections in July, outpacing use of slower, dial-up connections for the first time [61 million]." What that means in terms of how they use the Net, says the Associated Press, is a lot more "infosnacking." AOL told the AP that broadband users go to the Net for "quick snippets" of whatever - a quick email, a quick look-up of a news piece a friend recommended, a quick check of a sports scores, a dip into friends' current IM conversation, etc. Then there's the growing phenomenon of all-family access. The AP points to the Suhre family in Maryland. "Most evenings, the whole family is online at once: [Mark] Suhre wrapping up work as a computer network engineer; his wife, Terri, preparing school lessons or ordering from an e-tailer; his teenage sons Gary, Josh and Brandon playing online video games, instant messaging with friends, maybe even researching homework. The Suhres' lives, online and off, have been transformed by their broadband connection." Has yours? Email me your own families' experiences - positive or negative - with having high-speed Net access (or click on "comments" just below and post here!).

Gamer buys virtual land

Now, here's a quite amazing sign of real value being attached to alternate-reality things - in this case, land. "A 22-year-old [Australian] gamer has spent $26,500 on an island that exists only in a computer role-playing game," the BBC reports. The island's in a role-playing online game called Project Entropia; it's called a "massively multiplayer game" because thousands of people play it worldwide. "Entropia allows gamers to buy and sell virtual items using real cash, while fans of other titles often use auction site eBay to sell their virtual wares," according to the BBC. "Earlier this year economists calculated that these massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) have a gross economic impact equivalent to the GDP of the African nation of Namibia."

There's been a ton of gaming news of late, BTW: Here's a fascinating profile in the New York Times of electronic toymaker Jeri Ellsworth of Yamhill, Ore. Besides a lot of fun, "her efforts in reverse-engineering old computers and giving them new life inside modern custom chips has already earned her a cult following among small groups of 'retro' personal computer enthusiasts," among other things besides personal wealth (as yet), the Times adds. In Australia, "the rise of broadband Internet at home means more folks are having a crack at online gaming - but the learning curve can be steep." So Aussie ISP Netspace "has come up with Gameschool, a free service designed to attract more people to online gaming," Australian IT reports. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an at-a-glance gaming guide adding that many of the title are simply not geared for kids. And the New York Times describes the latest gamer gotta-have-it gadget: the Nintendo DS with two display screens, two microprocessors "to handle the color game graphics and the machine's many other functions," and slots for two kinds of game cartridges.

Toy ATMs: Sold out everywhere

Originally $25, it's now going for $70+ on eBay. It's a toy cash machine for kids, and it may be the surprise run-away favorite holiday gift this year. The Washington Post reports that Toys R Us sold 10,000 toy ATMs in four days, and TV-shopping channels QVC and the Home Shopping Network sold out of them in 3 minutes. "The machine's popularity is another illustration of how the toy industry is changing. Children are leaving traditional toys behind much sooner than in the past. Earlier this week, No. 2 toymaker Hasbro laid off 125 workers, citing struggles to adapt to a more electronics-driven market." Hmm, and what is this particular toy teaching kids? Maybe money does grow on trees, contrary to what my own dad always used to say.

Young and 'always online'

The Associated Press recently published a series that's not-to-miss for anyone interested in the Net's impact on today's youth. "The Internet has shaped the way they work, relax, and even date," according to the AP. "It's created a different notion of community for them and new avenues for expression that are, at best, liberating and fun - but that also can become a forum for pettiness and, occasionally, criminal exploitation." That's from Part 1, "Always online: Growing up on the Net," at Portland, Oregon's KATU TV. The series ran in news sites based all over the US (we even saw Part 1 in a South African site). KATU also picked up the parts about the instant-messaging phenomenon and online gaming (for more insights, see the sidebar, "Excerpts from Chip's Online Gaming Diary," at the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle also had Parts 4 and 5: "Truth can be elusive online" and "Unplugging can be good for you."

Online dangers 'likely to grow' in '05

It's the sad reality, according to the Washington Post, really referring to PC security: spam, worms, viruses, phishing, and ID theft. Despite the arrest of conviction of 11 virus writers and "rounding up hundreds of people accused of computer crimes from credit card fraud to outright identity theft ... most fraudsters, hackers, and spammers managed to stay one step ahead of the law," the Post adds. PC security experts cite phishing as one of the worst. To zoom in on that nasty from a family-tech perspective, see my feature last week, "To foil phishers."

Beware 'CoolWebSearch'!

It's the worst example of spyware that Webroot, an anti-spyware company, has seen. It's a malicious, self-installing program that hijacks Web searches and disables security settings in the Internet Explorer browser, then takes control of your Web surfing, ZDNET UK reports. To avoid getting it, Webroot recommends that people be sure to stay up-to-date on Microsoft security patches (go here), avoid using freeware (free software that can be downloaded at sites like and, and disable downloads via ActiveX in Explorer (your kids will probably be able to help you with this last one). A lot of techies are also saying it's a good idea just to switch to the free FireFox browser. CoolWebSearch tops Webroot's list of Top 10 spyware threats .

UK: Teen worm writer sentenced

A British teenager who is believed to be part of an international Internet gang has been given a six-month suspended sentence for his role in writing and distributing a worm. ZDNET UK cites one PC security experts as suggesting the 16-year-old "escaped lightly because of his age." The Randex worm that he helped write turned computers it infected into "zombies" that its writers - or spammers to whom they sold a whole network of zombie computers - could control for distribution of spam or for denial-of service attacks on large Web sites. The boy was sentenced at South Cheshire juvenile court, ZDNET UK reports. For more on the zombie phenomenon, see "What if our PC's a zombie?!"

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Teen 'antics'-cum-child porn

The number of reported incidents is growing. In the latest example, a boyfriend and girlfriend, both 16, were having "a bit of teenage fun," using a Webcam to record themselves "engaging in sexual acts," reports the Toronto Globe & Mail. The fun was over when they had a falling out and the boyfriend decided to email the video to his friends. The video of the girl "is on the Web for eternity," as a Hamilton, Ontario, detective on the case put it. And the boy "faces charges of possession and distribution of child pornography for filming what happens between thousands of teenagers each day," according to the Globe & Mail. The law in both Canada and the US (and probably everywhere) has yet to catch up with this phenomenon of self-published child porn. In Canada, "while teenagers older than 14 are legally allowed to have consensual sex, it is illegal under child-pornography laws to distribute material showing teens under 18 engaged in sexual acts," the Globe & Mail reports. The latter is a federal crime in the US as well. But not many cases of children distributing child porn involving themselves and peers have been through the courts to provide precedents. For perspective from the US's National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, see "Kids' self-victimization online" in my newsletter and an earlier piece, "Self-published child porn."

Protecting that new PC

Because a lot of spiffy new PCs will be pulled out of their boxes this time of year and because PC security is a bigger issue than ever, Washington Post techie writer Rob Pegoraro thoughtfully provides "Six Steps to Safer Surfing." Is this not music to our ears?: "It's completely feasible to put a computer on the Internet - even one running Windows, the most attacked, least secure operating system around - and never suffer a single successful attack," Rob writes. You just need to take some basic precautions, all spelled out in this article. Rob's sixth step is the hardest, especially if the PC will be used by kids: "to use the most effective security mechanism ever invented, the human brain." That means keeping one's critical thinking well-tuned whenever online - and, we would add, helping children appreciate and develop the best filter there ever was, the one between their ears. (See also "Critical thinking: Kids' best tool for research & online safety" in my newsletter.)

Monday, December 20, 2004

Mobile carriers balk at porn

It was looking like cell phones were going to have a dark, seamy side just like the Internet. But maybe not. Though the phones are basically little connected computers (with email, photos, audio, etc.), "the operators of phone networks are resisting new services that proved very popular on the old personal computer: pornography and violent video games," the New York Times reports. Cingular, for example, has announced that such content was "not compatible" with its brand. This is quite a development from a children's advocacy perspective, especially given the revenue phone companies stand to lose. But parents shouldn't hold their breath. As usual, there are censorship and free-speech issues involved. For example, the old fixed phone-line networks were carefully kept "open": "Historically, telephone carriers have not been allowed to censor what people say over the telephone or what phone numbers they call," the Times reports, adding that the FCC has said that cell-phone operators can't censor what consumers visit on the Net. The problem, in working this issue out, is that cell phones are much more like the Internet than regular talk-only phones, bringing with them all the same tension between free speech and child protection because they provide content (pictures, text, etc.) as well as a communications channel. So it'll be interesting to see if Cingular can fend off civil-liberties advocates and keep smut off its network; if not, maybe it should consider providing phone parental controls (see my first coverage of this last April).

India: Child porn by teens

Buried in a business story about the apparently unfair arrest of the executive in charge of India's version of eBay is the part of interest to parents of online kids. According to the Wall Street Journal, the arrest was over a pornographic video of two teenagers being sold for a short time on (which reportedly took the listing down as soon as it was alerted), an eBay subsidiary. Another teenager did the filming of what is probably the illegal kind of pornography (that involving minors), and an engineering student tried to sell the video on the auction site. The story is a reminder of how easy it is to film child pornography on digital video, upload it, and distribute it, whether for free via file-sharing networks, email, or instant-messaging or actually to try to sell it (here's the Associated Press's coverage). It has certainly happened in the US too - see "Self-published child porn" in my 8/27 issue.