Product review: Childproofing the Web

As noxious content pops up on the Web at an ever-accelerating clip, the Learning Company's $59.95 Cyber Patrol filtering package has done its best to keep pace.

First it blocked X-rated Web sites, then violence and gambling, then references to drug use, profanity, and hate speech. Now, with corporate Net access common throughout the world, Cyber Patrol has added entertainment and sports sites to a list of things too titillating on the Web.

With 1000 new Web sites surfacing every day, no program is perfect. But Cyber Patrol, with a crew of mom-and-pop surfers hand-plucking objectionable sites, is as close as it comes.

The program applies a list-based filtering system that puts blocked sites on the CyberNot list and sites suitable for kids on the CyberYes list.

Cyber Patrol's 12 category definitions give you an idea of what is blocked. Categories include Violence and Profanity, Partial Nudity, Full Nudity, Drug Culture, and Gambling.

The Learning Company says it differs from competing filtering programs because a Cyber Patrol researcher views and considers every site before it is blocked. This is the best way to gauge what's truly inappropriate for kids and what might be relevant, according to the company.

Getting started with Cyber Patrol 4.0 is simple. If you have Net access, you can easily download the program from the US Cyber Patrol Web site for $US29.95 or from this month onwards, purchase it at your local software retailer for $59.95. The download is only about 1.5MB and installed without a hitch on my Windows 95 PC.

The program consists primarily of what's called the Cyber Patrol Headquarters. The interface is uninspiring but extremely functional. It is a password-protected hub for configuring the type of content you would like to have screened.

After choosing your blocking options, simply save and close the window, which then becomes an icon on your taskbar. To regain access to the Headquarters, you double-click the icon and re-enter your password.

You can block by categories simply by selecting or deselecting them. To customise the lists, you can add or delete sites by their domain or by a specific URL.

When you select a category, such as Alcohol and Tobacco, the program blocks access to sites by displaying the CyberList Checkpoint page. Turn off the filter and you can access Absolut Vodka or Joe Camel tribute sites.

Like all filtering products, Cyber Patrol isn't perfect. I was able to access sites featuring hate groups and gambling, and some sexual-oriented sites, even though Alcohol, Intolerance and Partial Nudity was being filtered.

Makers of the program believe that Cyber Patrol blocks about 90 to 95 per cent of objectionable sites.

Cyber Patrol gives you the option to add your own filtering words, which restricts access to Web sites or newsgroups with references to those words.

Another feature prevents children from giving personal information about themselves -- a parent can enter keywords to be blocked, such as last names, an address, and telephone numbers. If your child types those letters while on the Net, the program turns the characters into gibberish.

However, I was startled to find how easy it was to cripple the ChatGard block and type whatever I tried. An embarrassed Cyber Patrol spokesperson claims this is a bug that affects some, not all, of its programs. The company promises to post a fix on its Web site soon.

Another useful feature is a time management tool that lets you limit the total online hours per day or week, or the number of times a child can use a computer. And you can restrict or limit access to programs on your PC, preventing Junior from wiping out the family budget or going bug-eyed playing Quake.

The Learning Company

Phone: (02) 9417-8550

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