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Finally! Free Options for Parents to Filter and Monitor Computer Use -- Part 1


There are many solutions on the market for controlling your children's computer time and use and filtering potentially offensive Internet sites. For the most part, they are effective, but they also cost money. In this day when the Internet is considered as essential as a telephone line, it seems parents deserve a way to keep tabs on things without having to fork over additional dollars to control what they are already paying to purchase.


Fortunately, the day has come where this appears to be a possibility, and finally families who are looking for ways to provide the Internet to their children can gain the ability to have some control over where their child goes and even monitor and limit overall computer use.


In this two-part feature, I'll outline four different ways you can implement Internet filtering without pulling out your credit card. They all have pros and cons, but each one has merits that can give you Internet and computer control that would have cost you money just a short time ago.


Glubble (www.glubble.com): Glubble is the lightest weight option of the four I am covering. It's not truly a filtering system, but instead is a "plug in" for your web browser that, with the click of a button, turns your computer into what looks like a child friendly world of bright colors and safe places to play.


To make its magic happen, it must work with the Firefox web browser. In case you are not aware, there are various different browsers you can download for your computer. If you use a Windows XP or Vista computer, there's a good chance you use Internet Explorer -- a very popular browser made by Microsoft -- to visit Internet sites.


Using Firefox doesn't mean giving up Explorer and, frankly, Firefox is a much better browser. Check with most anyone who does web site design and they will tell you how Firefox adheres much more closely to Internet standards than does Explorer.


The Glubble web site lets you download both Firefox and Glubble in one package, making installation very easy. And because Firefox will run on Windows, Apple and even Linux computers, you can use Glubble anywhere you can run Firefox. If you are already a Firefox user, have no worries about Glubble "taking over." A quick click and a password later, and Firefox is back to normal with the exception of an extra Glubble menu.


From a safety perspective, Glubble is like building a virtual fence around a safe Internet playground. Young users simply can't go anywhere except for the sites the Glubble and you have pre-approved. The Glubble site list is extensive and appears to hold a great deal of fun and reasonably high quality sites organized into topical collections. Click on "Math Shapes" for instance, and you are greeted with many sites that offer math skills help in a fun format. Click on 4Kids TV and you find yourself in the land of the Cartoon Network -- safe perhaps but your wallet may eventually feel some marketing pressure. Fortunately, a couple of clicks within the password protected control panel can remove any collections or sites you don't approve of. Likewise, you can easily add your own.


One endearing aspect of Glubble is its ability to act as a limited social networking service to your immediate family. Likening it to putting notes on the family refrigerator, family members can each have a password and put up notes, send emails and upload pictures. Of course, you may offer Glubble password protected accounts to anyone you wish, allowing relatives in distant lands to share in the fun.


The most obvious limitation of Glubble is that it's dead easy to circumvent. While leaving the environment within Firefox requires a parent's password, if your child has the smarts to open Internet Explorer or any other web browser on your computer, he is out in the wide open Internet. That means Glubble is truly only effective for children who want to follow your rules and stay safe. It really is a "first step" for computer guidance for young children.


K9 Web Protection: Most Internet filtering solutions that filter potentially offensive websites "on the fly" need to be installed on your computer. That also means if you have more than one computer, you usually pay an extra fee for multiple machines.


Finally, a company called Blue Coat has a solution that is absolutely free for home use, and it is very impressive. Called K9, it requires you to sign up for a free account and download software to your computer. It supports PCs running Windows 2000, XP or Vista as well as Apple's OS X computers.


I tried it on a PC, and it the installation was very easy. After signing up for your account, they send you a serial number for your personal use. A moment later, the filtering system was in place and I was presented with a control panel that gave me many different options for filtering based on categories like "gambling" and "pornography."


K9 shines in other areas besides being an effective content filter. Time restrictions can be set up in which you have great flexibility in controlling when a computer cannot access the Internet. The software also virtually eliminates inappropriate pictures from appearing in a Google image search by forcing the search engine into its more restrictive Safe Search mode. (This also works for MSN/Live, Yahoo, Ask, A9 and some other smaller search engines.)


Of the other K9 tricks, my favorite is the options that appear when a page is blocked. As the administrator, you can provide temporary or permanent access to the suspect page with a couple of clicks. Or you can open an entire category for a temporary amount of time. So, if you want games blocked, but your 12 year old has just vacuumed the house, washed the dishes and walked the dog, you can unblock games for a couple of hours.


On the other hand, you can enforce a "Time Out" if your persistent person keeps attempting to access a number of blocked sites within a set period of time. Once they reach the limit, the web is turned off for a set amount of time you can control.


K9 appears to be completely free, with no strings attached. I saw no advertising or any other content introduced other than the very functional blocking pages. In the FAQ section of the site, one question asks, "Why are you giving away this software." The answer: "Blue Coat Systems has been very successful selling a version of this software to Fortune 500 companies and other large corporations. When we became successful, and were looking for ways to give back to our communities, we realized that one valuable thing we could offer was a free version of our Web filtering service for home users."


It's hard to complain about such a great deal, but K9 has one small limitation (at least I could only see one). Compared to some other filtering solutions -- including a free one I'll cover in the second part of this report -- you cannot monitor Internet use or alter settings remotely. To see where your children have been online, you must do so on the computer they were using. Considering it offers many other features that were once exclusive to $50 per year subscription packages, this small caveat is minor, making K9 a family filtering solution that is something to howl about.


Next week, I will look at two more "free" solutions that can tame the Internet in your home.


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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