MSN 8 not kidding around with security

The latest version of Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Internet access software, due out later this month, will host a broad range of new parental controls aimed at protecting kids online, in a further sign that the software giant is hoping to edge out competitors by heeding to users' calls for bolstered online security.

Among the new features, users of MSN 8 will be able to filter out Web sites according to age-specific settings, block or limit a child's access to MSN Mail or Messenger and receive weekly history reports on what sites their children have tried to visit and with whom they've corresponded via e-mail or instant messaging (IM).

Beyond just protecting kids, the updated Internet service incorporates anti-virus protection from Corp. MSN 8 will also offer users an upgraded antivirus utility as part of a premium offering, said MSN Director Bob Visse.

Additionally, broadband users will have Network Address Translation firewall software rolled into their service. The range of new security features come as part of the Redmond, Washington, software maker's new trustworthy computing push.

The company previewed the offerings Wednesday in anticipation of the scheduled launch of MSN 8 on Oct. 24. Microsoft is throwing a considerable amount of weight behind the latest version of the Internet access software as it prepares to gun against rival America Online Inc. (AOL) which is set to release the update to its service, AOL 8.0, next Tuesday.

And although AOL has said that its 8.0 software will also boast new parental controls, Microsoft is calling its offerings the most comprehensive online safety features available from an Internet service provider.

In addition to age-specific filtering and blocking options, MSN has incorporated a Kids Search feature into its new software, which draws on more than 600,000 pre-screened sites appropriate for children, and a Kids Home Page option, offering age-specific games, music, content and activities.

The software also includes a Kids Request Line feature, allowing children to ask permission from their parents via e-mail to access Web pages, e-mail addresses or IM accounts they don't already have permission to access.

But perhaps more significantly, the software's new filtering capabilities occur at a network level, meaning that the restrictions are enforced on most other applications and Web browsers.

Ernie Allen, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, previewed the service last week and said that he believed this was an important feature in protecting kids online, given that kids are protected even if they download other applications.

Allen also said that he liked the wide range of filtering options given to parents and the transparency and ease of use of the restrictions.

"We want parents to know that [protecting kids online] is not such a daunting and overwhelming task," Allen said. "And it's very important."

Visse said that the parental controls were part of the company's overall trustworthy computing initiative, as well as an effort to stay competitive with AOL.

Although admitting that the company did not offer a lot in terms of parental controls in previous versions of its MSN software, Visse said that he believes MSN 8 is a "deeper and more flexible solution" than those offered by rival services.

"I think it is a big step forward," he said.

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Scarlet Pruitt

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