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Apple's attempt to protect kids rotten to the core

Apple wants to help protect your kids from menacing worms in cyberspace.

In January, Steve Jobs announced that iTools, Apple's new proprietary Internet features, would contain KidSafe, a revolutionary device to help keep impressionable eyes (ages 0-18) away from unsavory Web content. KidSafe, Apple's reasoning goes, is a step above filtering devices that seek and block out sites containing words like "breast, "sex," "penis," and "homosexual."

This one only allows kids into a set of pre-ordained sites. "It's a different approach," said Peter Lowe, Apple director of Mac OS Worldwide Product Marketing. "[Kidsafe] blocks out the entire Internet."

The effort drew woo-hoo's from many in the Apple community. "If you are one of these parents who doesn't pay attention to what the kids are doing, it's an ideal solution that really works well," said David Pogue, MacWorld columnist and author of Mac for Dummies.

Barry Fagin, Air Force Academy computer-science professor and founder of Families Against Internet Censorship, says KidSafe is indeed filtering. "It's just 'inclusive' filtering," Fagin said. But he finds KidSafe an acceptable solution. "Inclusive filtering is better; it's easier to maintain and more reliable. It also takes the burden off parents, most of whom know less about computing than their kids do."

The libertarian in Fagin likes the idea. "It's a classic example of a market-based, voluntary response to a social problem," he said. The parent in him rejects KidSafe, however. "I won't use it. I'll want my kids to connect to the Internet directly."

Notice a trend? KidSafe is a great solution for those other parents, the ones who don't care about what their kids do on the Internet, who don't have time to monitor their activities. Those parents don't talk to their kids about disturbing content, as Fagin does with his 9- and 11-year-olds. See that paternalistic bear crawling out of his cave? It's not good enough for our high-tech households, but it's good enough for theirs.

Don't get me wrong: I admire Pogue and Fagin. We're on the same side, so to speak. And I can be paternalistic with the best of them, especially when it comes to issues like the digital divide.

But I do worry that Apple and the rest of us are leaving a trail of good-enough bread crumbs on this one. Worse, I fear that some newbie parents -- who are indeed interested, but don't get the techie particulars -- will blindly buy into this one (told you I'm paternalistic). I sure don't advise rushing into KidSafe as your kids' only surfing option -- no matter how scared you are of the evils that supposedly lurk online.

Break it down. For one, KidSafe is way too limited. Sure, 50,000 sites may sound like a lot, but it's not if you want kids to have a world of diverse information at their fingertips. Who's to say how many sites, pro and con, they'll find on a given topic using KidSafe? (Well, Apple will say, actually.)

KidSafe apologists counter that parents can add their own sites to the lineup. But what's wrong with this logic? They're promoting KidSafe for those "other" parents who don't have time to surf with their kids -- are they really going to spend hours coming up with additional inspired, educational sites? In effect, their kids will enter a limited world of Apple-approved sites. And, sure, I'm a fan of the "Think Different" approach -- but do I believe Apple will take too many chances on their pre-approved content? Nope. It's sure to stay pretty "safe," in every sense of the word.

And how about those ages -- 0 to 18? Please. Can we not insult our teenagers' intelligence by lumping them in with the toddlers? Can we at least break the approved sites into different, age-appropriate categories? I'm insulted, and I haven't been 15 in a good 13 years.

Sure, KidSafe may work if you want to let a 5-year-old surf unsupervised for the first time. Beyond that it strikes me as a useless PR tool. I'd leave this apple on the tree.

-- E-mail comments to donna@shutup101.com.

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