Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Small Company Begs to Differ With Harvard as Report on Online Child Safety Goes to Print

One of the areas of investment that we have been very interested in is the online security sector. The reason for this is that we have a healthy suspicion of the web... ironic as this is on a blog, but follow my logic.

The web, as a tool, is mind blowing. We have become so used to being able to communicate at the speed of light, to being able to socialise on a world stage all from our laptop like some empowered super Jedi, that we have forgotten about the Dark Side of the Force.

In our online world millions of villains sit in the shadows. There are small timers who just sit and write rubbish about their enemies on chat rooms and bulletin boards, there are those who want to shoot down competitors so make sure lies can be seen as fact on anonymous chat rooms using multiple names to make it more sensational. There are robots combing the web for email addresses to deliver to their masters who control millions of zombie computers, ready to email you a lottery scam, a Nigerian scam or a manhood extension.

As adults, now veterans of the web, we can recognize these cynical ploys and even buy filters to wipe them out. I get at least 200 emails a day, offering everything from knock-off watches to Vicoden which are vaporized by my spam filter.

These tools, a healthy suspicion of everything that comes into my inbox and everything I read on the web, protect me from the worst of what the Dark Side has to offer. What worries me most though is not my inbox or what I read; it is my son's experience on the web.

My cynicism could be seen as being over protective, but in the real world I would not let my son wander around a porn shop, hang out with people significantly older than he is and let him be influenced by those whose views I don't approve of, so why should I do this with the web?

I for one would take a bullet for my boy and say 'thank you very much can I have another' before I would let any harm come to him. On the web I am handing that responsibility to companies such as MySpace, Facebook and the like and they don't know my son exists, never mind having the motivation to protect him like I would.

These sites say that they 'do what they can' for security, indeed, MySpace removed 29000 sex offenders from their site in 2007, that's great, but how did they get on there in the first place? The cynical would suggest that they only removed these profiles after law suits became overwhelming. To be fair they are looking into new security measures, but for us, it’s not fast enough.

That is why we are watching a company that has gone the whole hog in protecting our kids and, in an ironic twist of fate, it launches in beta tomorrow, the same day as a Harvard report on this issue is published.

The highly anticipated report -- results of a year-long study ordered by 49 state attorneys general -- found that "a combination of technologies, in concert with parental oversight, education, social services, law enforcement, and sound policies by social-network sites and service providers, may assist in addressing specific problems that minors face online," according to a draft of the report reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Task-force members included representatives of several top Internet and security companies, including News Corp.'s MySpace, Google Inc., Time Warner Inc.'s AOL and Facebook Inc. The conclusions, therefore, that "age and identity verification, filtering and auditing, text analysis and biometrics" were found to come up "short of a comprehensive way to protect children and teens", should be taken with this in mind. After all, these companies are not keen on spending the money to develop such technologies, nor want others to filter out their sites. As the report said "deploying these technologies would be costly and could create broader privacy and security problems" .

MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam said in a statement that MySpace "fully supports the key conclusions of the report." One could be unkind and say 'they would say that, wouldn't they'.

As is the speed of development on the web, a year long study done by very important people and rich web companies is about to look old and out of date on the day of its publication because of a small company in Miami.

Dolphin Secure from Dolphin Digital Media (their blog is here) (OTCBB:DPDM) is a groundbreaking Internet security system that provides parents with the necessary tools to protect their children while they are using computers inside the home.

Specifically, Dolphin Secure provides parents the peace of mind of deciding which websites their children can view and whom their children can interact with online, safeguarding them from exposure to pornography, gambling and unsolicited chat requests from potential predators.

Children log in and authenticate their account with their fingerprint utilizing a reader that is either built into the computer or connected via a USB port. Once logged-on, the personal computer is completely protected from accessing unauthorized internet sites as directed by the parent.

The Dolphin Secure system lives as a system process on the computer (those icons by the clock on the computer) that can only be turned off with a parental password.

Children can open and close multiple browsers, turn the computer on and off or throw their laptop down the stairs! Unless directed by the parent, the child will be unable to disable the security settings. The computer will still be Dolphin-Secured.

To utilize the program there is no software to purchase as the system application is downloaded upon registration. Furthermore, members are restricted to Instant Messaging and communicating only with other members within Dolphin Secure.

The parental control panel is where the action is. If your child surfs to an unauthorized site but has heard from friends it is 'cool' they can press a button to request that it be added to the white list of 5000 sites. If the parent thinks it is appropriate and Dolphin has reviewed it, it will be added to the list of available sites. This creates an organically growing network of websites that are suitable for your child and are deemed to be safe, something that sites who do not place a value on security will not be happy with.

The instant chat facility is cool too. For example, parents of four daughters may determine their six year-old daughter is not allowed to chat at all, their nine year-old daughter is only allowed to chat with a select group of five friends, their thirteen year-old daughter is only allowed to chat with other girls her age or younger, and their sixteen year-old daughter is allowed to chat with boys and girls 18 years old and under.

Also when a child attempts to send a message to an unauthorized buddy, an error message will appear, at which time a notification will be sent to the parent indicating the request for a new buddy from the child.

For instance, if your nine year-old son’s chat settings were limited to boys within one year of his age and he wanted to add his twelve year-old female cousin to his buddy list, a notification will be sent to the parent account requesting approval to add the requested person. Furthermore, if a chat request to the child is attempted from a user outside the child’s settings, a notification of such attempt is given to the parents (and never to the children).

Email forwarding is included, so your kids can keep their email address, but it is filtered for chat requests and spam, porn etc.

And the charge for giving control back to where it should be? $59.00 per year. Personally I think that is a very small price to pay.

The technology was developed by Dolphin Digital Media Inc. The company was born out of Dolphin Entertainment who are producers of popular kids TV shows and movies for Nickelodeon such as Zoey101 and Roxy Hunter. They have a High School Musical type TV movie coming out called 'Spectacular' and a movie about Bethany Hamilton, the true story of a 13 year old shark attach victim who lost her arm and became a world class surfer on her come-back.

The marketing synergies are obvious for the two companies.

There are other products on the market that do similar things but none that we know of that combine the instant chat facilities and other add-ons. The interesting thing, from an investment point of view, is that the company is not looking to become a software provider, like the other companies in this space.

Dolphin Secure is more likely to be developed as a portal for children and teens. Two social networking sites will be launched this week. Unseen content from TV shows and movies, friendship contact with the stars of the movies and shows as well as teasers, deleted scenes and even walk on parts in upcoming movies will all be used to add to the excitement for kids to join the network.

The point, missed by the Harvard report, is that protection on the web is hard, but to create a network of safe sites within the web submitted by an army of kids and approved by their parents is a scalable solution to the problem. The big sites, who have not concentrated on safety issues, due to cost and the fact that any safety barriers reduce their user base (and therefore ad revenue), could get left out in the cold as parents reclaim the web for themselves and their families.

President Kennedy once said 'we do these thing not because they are easy, but because they are hard'. Wise words and ones that should be remembered when we put child security into the 'too hard' basket.

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