By GREG MILLER
TIMES STAFF WRITER
"We hear from customers that they have seen content on the Internet they
don't want their children to see," said Tom Evslin, vice president of AT&T
WorldNet, an Internet access service with about 900,000 subscribers.
"They've been asking for control, and we need to make sure subscribers have
the tools they need."
What those tools might be, and who might supply them, are questions for
which there is no clear answer.
But many Internet free-speech advocates are wary of possible ratings
schemes that might prove to be "voluntary" only in theory.
"There is a lot of market incentive right now to come up with the best
parental control tools," said Bill Burrington, director of law and public
policy for AOL, the world's largest online service, with about 8 million
subscribers. "It's become a competitive issue for us."
AOL scores points with parents, and attracts new subscribers, by offering
different levels of access to users in different age groups. A service
called "kids only," for instance, gives children ages 6 through 12 access
only to content and Web sites that have been pre-approved by AOL. Parents
determine their children's access when they subscribe to the service.
Among one of the company's core subscription groups--families with children
using the service--about 30% are already using access control tools. And
that number is expected to grow, Burrington said.
So far, the best-known approaches to the problem center on software that
filters out inappropriate sites. Internet service providers including
WorldNet and Netcom Online Communications encourage their subscribers to
download copies of products such as CyberPatrol and SurfWatch, which allow
users to limit access to pre-approved sites.
But Jeff Fox, an editor at Consumer Reports magazine, said even the best of
these products failed about 20% of the time to block access to sexually
explicit or otherwise inappropriate sites during a recent test.
"They're better than nothing," Fox said, "but there's still lots of room
[_Consumer Reports_ is covering this stuff?!]
"What we sell isn't our editorial judgment, it's reliable access," said
AT&T's Evslin. Controlling content is likely to be a growing business, he
said, "but not one for AT&T."