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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Is The Answer?

My friend Tracy Mooney from McAfee (read her blog here) responded to my latest posting about Facebook with this question/statement: "Yes but how?"  A very short statement that sums up a huge problem with the online world - how do we make it safe for kids?  I can always count on Tracy to bring my lofty goals down to Earth :-).

In July, I wrote an article reviewing the Online Safety and Technology Working Groups (OSTWG) report on the current status of the online safety of children in the U.S. and their recommendations for improving the situation.  In summary, their research produced extremely valuable data and their suggestions fell far short of improving anything.  At that time I made some suggestions for how we as a nation might make the online world safer for kids.  The two primary suggestions I had were:

  1. Certified "Kid Safe" sites - a single organization (like the OSTWG) comes up with a set of standards and requirements that a website must meet to receive the certification.  A company like Google creates a browser that only allows access to these certified sites.  Schools and homes install this specialized browser on machines that children use.  The federal government legislates steep penalties for organizations that abuse the certification.
  2. Youth ambassadors/youth credibility - the message of good online citizenship must come from sources that kids view as credible.  That means people who know the online world as well as they do and people that aren't viewed by kids as being out of touch with the problems they face.  A national curriculum should be created (again OSTWG would be a good source for this) utilizing college age, young adults (much like youth ministers or camp counselors) to deliver the message.

Of course there is much more to this than the summary description I listed above.  Read the full article for complete details.

While I still strongly believe these ideas are sound and should be explored on a national level, I don't think either of these solutions would solve problems like the one presented by Facebook.  Here are the facts:
  • Facebook is unsafe for kids
  • Facebook is blatantly uncaring and uninterested in making their site safer for kids
  • Kids would still join Facebook despite my "Kid Safe" site certification idea.
In a perfect world, I would like to believe that sites and services like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, etc. would live by the adage: "with great power comes great responsibility".  All of these companies have become very lucrative and powerful from the success of their products.  Stepping up to the "responsibility" part of the equation should be the next step.  With all of their resources and momentum, they should set aside some money and R&D effort to come up with a solution.  They are obviously smart enough.  But apparently they aren't interested in being responsible and clearly we can't count on them to solve the problem.  Without their leadership, we are back to Tracy's question "Yes, but how?"

I was laying in bed thinking about all of this last night when something occurred to me (bear with me here).  In the early 1900's automobiles were the emerging technology in Europe and the U.S..  European government leaders recognized the dangers that these machines zipping around pedestrians and slow moving animals could create.  In 1903, Prussian leaders created a set of mandatory tests that drivers had to pass before receiving a certificate of privilege to drive.  Included in these requirements was a mandatory age, clear vision and hearing, and a baseline level of intelligence and responsiveness to typical scenarios drivers would face.  The driver's license was born and the concept quickly caught on and was adopted by governments all over the world (the first in the U.S. was New York, 1910). Today the emerging technology is cyberspace.  Is it time to come up with a license to use it?  Maybe so.

Imagine a culture that has embedded the online world into every part of their lives - communication, entertainment, shopping, news and information, banking, business interactions, etc.  Realizing the potential danger that abuse of such a system could cause, this culture's leadership comes up with a digital ID much like a driver's license.  You receive it when you are born and use it through life to identify and verify yourself when you go online making business and commerce transactions.  It would keep you out of harmful sites when you are young and give you more security when you shop and do your banking.  OH WAIT...we are that culture...why haven't we looked into developing the digital ID for all citizens?  Businesses have been doing it for years.  The digital signature is common for verifying digital transactions and verifying data in the corporate world.  The technology is there, why not take it to the next level and make a digital identity required just like a birth certificate and social security card?

This concept is nothing new and I certainly didn't invent this idea.  Digital visionaries have been kicking the idea around for 20 years.  The two big arguments that come up any time the concept of a required, national digital ID are:

  1. The infrastructure it would require to manage such a system would be huge and expensive - who would assume that responsibility?
  2. The "Big Brother" potential - people feel that this gives the government too much visibility into our private lives.

Here are my answers to those arguments.  First, Social Security is a big system, as is the State driver's license system.  But we do it because it's necessary.  How long will we keep our head in the sand and not admit that we have progressed to a point where digital ID's are now necessary? Let's also not forget that the federal government is spending billions trying to stimulate new business - grants for anyone to come up with any hair-brained idea they have.  Well, this would be a new business wouldn't it?  Put some stimulus money toward developing this.

Second, come on...the Big Brother argument is no longer valid.  If we as a nation were worried about government visibility into our private lives, we wouldn't be posting every mundane detail of what we do on our social media accounts.  Do you really think the government doesn't have visibility into that? When George Orwell's book 1984 came out, it scared people and a huge push for individuality and personal privacy ensued.  60 years later we have willingly sacrificed every shred of our personal privacy in the name of entertainment. What we have done with Facebook and Twitter would scare George Orwell.

Someone has to do something.  Our current solutions aren't working.  It's time that society wakes up and confronts this problem realistically.  What would have happened if our forefathers said "a driver's license is a silly waste of time"?  Would you venture out onto the roads knowing there are no minimum safety requirements or accountability for the other drivers around you?  No.  Then why are we doing it digitally?

So, my new, number 3 item on my list of solutions is personal digital ID's.  Let the nay-saying begin.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fox News: Pedophiles Find a Home for Social Networking -- on Facebook

Last week I was lambasted by a purported Facebook employee who said that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's donation of $100 million to schools in NJ proves that child wellfare is extremely important to Facebook and that I was pretty much full of crap as a critic.

Today an article by Fox News reports that a national association for pedophiles - NAMBLA (yes, believe it or not there is one) uses Facebook as their primary source for communication.  Read the article here (it's definitely a must read).  Pornographic pictures of minors are exchanged, meetings with minors are arranged, and the so called "rights" of pedophiles are evangelized.  Preliminary reports show that this group has used Facebook for at least two years and possibly more without incident (meaning Facebook has not shut them down).

Facebook's response to the article by Fox News was this statement: "We take safety very seriously and have a strict policy against the posting of child exploitive content or content that supports child exploitive groups.  Facebook is highly self-regulating, and users can and do report content that they find questionable or offensive. Our team of investigations professionals reviews these reports, removes content that violates our policies, and escalates to law enforcement as necessary.” 

If this statement were true, why is it that Fox News investigators found not only NAMBLA's disgusting site, but over 80 affiliated group sites and over 100 links from other group sites to the NAMBLA site?  80 groups don't pop up overnight.  If Facebook made any effort at all to investigate as they say they do, they would have surely stumbled onto one of these sites (which should have lead them to others).  The Fox News article reports that a simple search on "man/boy love" revealed many of the sites.

So I would very much like the Facebook employee who keeps sending me hate mail to comment on this article and their supposed commitment to child safety on their social network.  And I would also very much like all those parents out there that let their children run amok on Facebook unsupervised to rethink that policy.

UPDATE:  Mary Kay Hoal of and took the ball and ran with it even further.  Be sure to read her article for even more information on Facebook and NAMBLA.  Good stuff Mary Kay!

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Because of Fox New's outstanding report, Facebook is finally dismantling the NAMBLA organization and their chapters sites.  Read about it here.  Thank you Fox News!

iBoss Router - Where Can I Get One?

Several times I have spoken of the iBoss Router.  Great product that solves many online safety problems in the home.  If you want to know more about it, you can read my review here.  The problem with the iBoss Router is where to get it.  Phantom Technologies (who makes the iBoss) seems to be moving in an enterprise direction, marketing their equipment to large organizations.  As a result, their website is becoming less friendly to the home users like you and I. 

I got an e-mail yesterday from someone who was frustrated that they couldn't find iBoss home router information on the Phantom Technologies website.  I went out and dug around and finally came up with it.  Here is the link:

Friday, September 24, 2010

Facebook Fires Back...Again

If you read this blog, you know that I occasionally get e-mails from a person at Facebook complaining or disputing my many Facebook related posts.  I got another one today, this one directing my attention to this article:

The article reports that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated over $100 million to schools in Newark NJ.  The e-mail that I received had this message in it for me:

"You go to great lengths to point out how Facebook is supposedly harmful for children and that Facebook as a company has no interest in the welfare of children.  This donation by our CEO proves that you are very wrong and, I believe, discredits you as a critic."

Really?!  So you create a product that readily reveals private information about children, that facilitates cyber-bullying and harassment from anonymous sources, and makes it easy for pedophiles and sexual predators to stalk and hunt minors...and this donation is supposed to make that all "ok."  Seriously?

Pablo Escobar was one of the most generous donors to schools and social services in his local community in Columbia.  Did that make the drug empire he ran "ok"? Did that make up for the millions of people who's lives were destroyed from addiction to his drugs?  I'm not saying that Facebook is comparable to a Columbian drug cartel (far from it), but a donation doesn't automatically fix the problems.  Morality isn't something you can purchase.  I would have rather seen Zuckerberg invest that money into efforts around making Facebook safer for kids.  Then at least he would be accepting responsibility for the problems his product creates.

And of course I have to end with my usual sermon.  The blame for exposure to dangerous Facebook features does not lie solely with the people at Facebook.  Any parent who lets their child get onto Facebook without direction or monitoring is equally to blame. Ignorance isn't an excuse, it's a form of laziness.  Learn about Facebook and if you must let your kids on it, be there with them.  It's a dangerous neighborhood.

(note: the communication I have received from Facebook has been from an anonymous person who claims to be a Facebook employee.  No official communication from Facebook has been issued, though I would very much like to start that dialogue with them)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Facebook Faux Pas

This is both funny and scary at the same time.  A British teen accidentally created a public event for her private birthday party and posted it to Facebook (including her home address and contact info).  Within a few days over 20,000 people responded (and now know the girl's address and contact info).

You can read the article here:

Parents, know what your kids are doing on Facebook.  Kids make bad choices sometimes (intentionally or not) and Facebook does nothing to protect their privacy.  It's definitely a dangerous place for kids.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dangers of Skype

Wow.  If your kids use Skype, you have to read this great article by Stephanie Kohl.


Dangers of Internet for children highlighted by Skype incident

September 16, 2010

A 10-year-old Lake Forest girl was chatting with her friends on Skype about the first day of school and some homework assignments recently.

It was not unusual for the student to log into Skype -- which offers free video calls and instant messaging to others on Skype -- on Sept. 1, as she and her friends have been using it for awhile now. So, when a user with a screen name she didn't recognize requested to chat with her, she accepted, thinking it was a friend from the neighborhood, said her mother.

After the request was accepted, a video started. It was a naked, middle-aged man inappropriately touching himself and sending equally inappropriate messages to her. The girl screamed for her mother, who immediately called the police. The incident is still under investigation.

"She got so freaked out that she's not Skypeing anymore," the mother said of her daughter. (The pair wish to remain anonymous.)

Realizing if this happened to her daughter, it could happen to anyone using any online communication tool, the woman shared the incident with her friends. She also told all her children who use Skype and other cyber outlets -- like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter -- to communicate only with their friends and to never respond to requests from people they are not certain they know.

Read the rest of the article here

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How to Disable Facebook Places

Hopefully, you've read my rants on how dangerous I believe the Facebook Places feature is for kids.  If you haven't you can read them here.  My intention was to post instructions for parents and teachers to disable Facebook Places but my friends at beat me to it (not surprising since they always have great info for parents and teachers).  So with their gracious permission, I am re-posting their content so you can be better informed about disabling this feature.

Here is their article (you can read the original article complete with pictures here)


How to Turn Facebook Places Off
A GPS (Global Positioning System) can be a great tool when we need it--like for driving directions or when we need to find the nearest Starbucks.  But when it comes to protecting our children from strangers--whether it's online or in real life--giving away the exact location of our kids is the last thing we want to do. 

So we've put this guide together for parents who use Facebook, or have older children who are on Facebook.  The guide gives you a thorough walk-through on how to disable Facebook Places to the best of your abilities.  You'll have to dig through the Privacy Settings and Account Settings of your profile and your child's profile if you want to do it right, so follow each step carefully:
Privacy Settings: Step 1 - Log in your Facebook profile => go to Account => go to Privacy Settings.
Step 2 - From this page click on the little blue link towards the bottom called "Customize settings"
Step 3 - In the category "Things I Share" look for "Places I check in to" and click on the drop-down menu.
Step 4 - Choose "Custom". In the box that comes up, under "Make this visible to" select "Only Me".
This will make it so that in case you do ever "check in" on accident, with Places, the only News Feed it'll appear on is yours.  (This is protection for you since Facebook doesn't allow you the option to "disable" or to completely opt out of this particular feature of Places.)
Step 5 - In the same category, uncheck the box called "Include me in "People Here Now" after I check in
Step 6 - In the next category, "Things Others Share", click on the drop-down menu next to "Friends can check me in to Places" and select Disabled.
Account Settings:
Step 1 - Go back up to Account  => go to Account Settings
Step 2 - At the top, click on the Notifications tab.
Step 3 - Scroll all the way down to the Places category and uncheck BOTH boxes. 
Step 4 - Click the Save Changes button below.
Click here for the full guide with pictures and all.  You can also read Mary Kay's thoughts and concerns about Facebook Places.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Google Family Safety Center - Come On Google, You're Better Than This!!

Last week, Google launched their anticipated "Family Safety Center" without much noise from the media.  I knew this effort was in the works but didn't know when it was coming out.  It's out :-).

I was excited about the possibilities that a project like this coming from an organization like Google could bring.  Everything Google does is cool and cutting edge and I was hoping for another home run in their long list of successful ventures (YouTube, Picasa, Buzz, Blogger, Gmail, Chrome, and about a hundred other subsidiaries, not to mention their ever-improving search engine).  Like a fan at a Red's game, I watched the pitch with great anticipation as the launch of Google Family Center approached...the swing of the bat...a hit....and...a short little blooper over the short stop's head.  A single...but definitely not a home run.

A few months ago I did an article about Disney's lame attempt at child safety online.  Companies like Disney...and Google, with all of their power and momentum, should be able to come up with something ground breaking; something that really advances the cause of Internet safety for kids.  Instead, both came up with a lukewarm attempt that was just a repeat of stuff other people are already doing.  Almost as if they were just looking to "say" they are doing something instead of actually doing something.  Google could have done a lot more than they did.

So what does Google Family Center offer parents and teachers?  Here's the list:
  1. Google Safety Tools - this is the most useful feature of this new service (though that's not saying much).  It contains directions for enabling safety features in Google search and YouTube.
  2. Report Abuse - provides instructions for how to report abuse or offensive content found on YouTube, Buzz, Picasa, and Blogger
  3. Advice from Partners - a list of links to the standard Internet Safety websites
  4. Video Tips for Google Parents - a small collection of videos of (apparently) Google employees talking about Internet safety issues with their own kids.
Some of this stuff is useful, but consider this:  With the exception of "Report Abuse," every feature Google Family Center also a feature of this blog (the one you are reading right now).  Over on the right hand side you will see links to many of the "partners" they reference.  You will also find directions for using Google's safety tools.  On top of that, I try to post useful information as often as I can (often daily), which they are not doing.  Last time I checked, I'm not a multi-billion dollar global corporation who could afford to pour tons of money into such an effort...and I'm practically out competing them in this space.

If it were anyone else, I would probably give the site a 4+ on my 10 point scale, but because of what Google COULD do if they really wanted to, I give Google Family Center a 3- (barely).  Maybe this is just the first step.  Maybe a year from now this service will be super cool.  I hope so.  But for now, don't waste your time.  Come on're better than this.

Here's the link:

Friday, September 10, 2010

Thanks to the Western Cincy Monthers of Twins Club

Did a presentation last night for the Western Cincinnati Mothers of Twins club. Great group, very engaged in the dialogue and interested in child safety online. Thanks for having me.

Here is a link to their website.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

If You Wouldn't Say It In Person...Don't Say It Online

I've seen this video before but stumbled across it again yesterday.  It's a great statement about cyber-bullying and it's only 47 seconds long.  The message focuses on how easy it is for kids to say things about others online - things they wouldn't say to a person's face.

Monday, September 6, 2010

...And the Facebook Hits Just Keep On Comin'

Clearly Facebook has crossed the line from being ignorant about child safety to blatantly not caring.  The only place to go from here is for them to just admit they are a site that facilitates sexual predation and be done with it.  They could start making money by advertising services to creepy perverts..."Rent dirty old ice cream trucks by the hour."  Maybe because Craigslist did something good and decided to censor it's bad content, Facebook saw a need to balance the equation and do something bad.  What am I talking about?  This article on CNN this morning:

Facebook has invented yet another gadget that will further violate your childrens' privacy and safety.  The latest "gem" is a feature that lets you "subscribe" to a specific person.  Once you subscribe to someone, you get notices, via e-mail or on your cell phone, every time they post anything onto their Facebook page.  That means when little Suzie posts a message about making the cheerleading squad and going to her friend Janie's party to celebrate, her pervert stalker will know it instantly.  To make it even scarier, if you combine this new feature with the equally reckless Facebook Places feature, every time your child reveals his/her location to Facebook, anyone who has subscribed will be instantly updated.  Brilliant!  So when Suzie arrives at the cheerleading party with all of her cheerleader friends, creepy stalker will be updated.  Why don't the people at Facebook just go all the way and offer a "webcam in childrens' bedrooms" feature to complete the sexual predator suite?

Of course Facebook's defense is their usual "you don't have to use this feature."  Again, that defense doesn't work for drugs and alcohol (Jimmy, you don't have to go get high with your friends tonight....really Mom?...ok, I won't), how will it work here?

Facebook has clearly left the child-safety building.  I have lost all hope that they will ever be a safe medium for anyone under 18.  To all you parents out there reading, I will say this:  If your kids are on Facebook you better be closely involved.  It's turning into a really bad neighborhood.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Facebook Stalker Continues to Harass 12-Year-Old Girl

 I got a very nasty comment from someone who works at Facebook last week about my posting criticizing their Facebook Places feature.  The comment was very unprofessional so I didn't approve it to be displayed.  In the comment the person said that "...child safety is one of the top concerns at Facebook."  Yeah right!  And then there is this article from this morning that says otherwise.
Facebook stalker continues to harass 12-year-old girl
By Helen A.S. Popkin

Hot on the heels of a woman who's suing Facebook after the world's largest social network bounced her account (for reasons that remain unclear), comes a story from Australia about a mother who can't get Facebook to shut down a stalker using the site to harass her 12-year-old daughter and her friends.

"A Sydney mother-of-three, her daughter and daughter's friends have been subjected to a two-week ordeal at the hands of a Facebook stalker and they have been unable to get the social networking company to intervene," the Sydney Morning Herald reported Thursday.

This dramatic tale of a Facebook stalker hacking and harassing young girls on Facebook speaks to a couple of issues regularly faced in this brave new world of social media — the dangers awaiting children online and Facebook's oft-complained-about lack of customer service.

According to the newspaper story, the stalker gained access to the daughter's account and used her identity to gather information about her (including her address) from her Facebook friends, unbeknownst to the girl. The hacker was discovered, but continued to harass the girl, her mother and friends with threatening messages, pornographic images and the like.

Unable to shut down her daughter's profile, "We tried reporting [the account] on Facebook," the mother said. "We got all her friends to report it on Facebook. Facebook won't reply. They don't want to contact us. They don't want to know about it, basically. You cannot ring Facebook."

In a statement to the Sydney Morning Herald, an Australia-based public relations firm that represents the social network in that country pointed out Facebook's 14-year-old minimum age requirement. The firm also said that "Facebook cooperates with Australian law enforcement agencies to help ensure that Facebook remains a safe place for our users to connect with friends and family."

Authorities investigating the case first told the mother they had the ability to shut down her daughter's account, but eventually contacted her telling her they were unable to, and the profile remains live.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Kid-Safe Homework Help Sites

The school year is underway for most people and as a result, I've gotten several e-mails asking me about kid-safe websites that offer homework help.  So instead of answering these e-mails one by one...and because I think any parent or teacher would benefit from information about such sites, I decided to post an article about it.

Many teachers already have preferred sites for student homework assistance.  My advice to parents is, if your child's teacher recommends a specific site, use that site.  If you still need more help, here are a few that I know of:

Smithsonian Institute Encyclopedia -
KidsClick -
Kids.Gov -
WebLens for Kids -
AOL Kids Homework Help -

Certainly these aren't all the good homework help sites out there.  So I am asking all of you...If there are any sites you know of that are... A. kid friendly (meaning safe) and B. free, leave a comment or send me an e-mail and I will add it to my list above.