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Family Technology—MAX Control for the Information Highway

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Has it ever happened to you?

You’re innocently looking up something on the Internet, and the next thing you know you are faced with a page of pornographic sex goddesses emblazoned across your screen. To make matters worse, you try and close the page, which has taken over your entire monitor, but more pages keep popping up.

All it takes is one slip on the keyboard and a misspelled website address can suddenly open a window of sexual perversion. Or an innocent enough name (like the infamous “whitehouse.com”) can lead to unexpected content.

If you’ve had this experience, you’re likely one of millions of parents who are reluctant to have the Internet in their home because you don’t want your children exposed to similar sights.

Over the past few years, experts have provided us with good ideas on how we can help our children use the Internet. Having the family computer in a high traffic area is a great place to start. As well, educating children on how to use the Internet safely is very important.

But even in Internet savvy homes, accidental brushes with porn, hate, and other objectionable content can occur. And preventing a manipulative adult from extracting information from your child in a chat session may not always be possible.

For these reasons Matt Stanley, Executive Vice-President of Max.com, has created a unique way through which parents can keep close tabs on their family’s Internet habits and activities.

“What we’re trying to do is offer a tool to parents,” explains Stanley, who emphasizes that each client should be able to select their own comfort level based on who is using the computer. “You’ve got to use the tool to match your parental style.”

Certainly many parents have resorted to using some type of “filter” or parental control on their Internet connection. Some of these have been around since the Internet became popular, and are purchased like any other software package from various electronics and discount stores.

These software “client-side” filters reside on your computer, and usually rely on a list of websites that are downloaded from the software manufacturer on a regular basis. They also offer filtering or complete termination of chat activities, and allow parents to generally regulate the time their children spend on-line.

On the other side of the formula are ISP (Internet Service Provider) or “server-side” parental controls. Companies like AOL and Microsoft provide parents with filtering services that require little or no setup on your home computer.

Both solutions have pros and cons. Max.com has tried to create a hybrid solution combining the best of both models.

To begin with, Max.com is a full service ISP. It can replace your current Internet Service Provider, and offer you a very advanced parental control mechanism. With dial-up access numbers across the US and Canada, chances are there’s a connection point within your local calling area. If there isn’t, you can use Max.com with your current service provider.

But the most impressive part of Max.com is the enormous control it offers. After registering your billing information, you download the software required for installation on your computer. A painless procedure follows and then you get to the good stuff that will make you feel like you have more control than even James Orwell imagined in 1984.

Logging into the MAX Family Manager over the Internet, you are presented with a myriad of possibilities. First, you can create individual user accounts for each member of your family. MAX has preset settings for various age groups: Parents, teens, children, and toddlers, or you can refine them further.

Clicking on the “Filter” tab lets you choose to “allow”, “warn”, or “block” up to 11 types of content broken into categories labeled pornography, adult/mature, illegal activities, hate/violence, etc. If you enter specific information about your child (like her name, address, and phone number) into the “Pedophile Protector,” it will prohibit that information from entering into a chat session.

Finally, there are master “on/off” switches to block peer-to-peer file sharing, chatting, web browsing, or even cut off the Internet entirely for one specific user.

If a block is necessary, MAX closes the Internet browser and can even take a “picture” of the screen so you can see exactly what was happening when the infraction occurred. It is also willing to drop you an email at the office (or anywhere else) and let you know what happened. It’s this remote warning and control that makes MAX so powerful.

So how does MAX work in a real family setting? While writing this article in my home office, I glanced out the door to see what my daughter was up to in the family room. She’s supposed to be writing a book report, but instead was enthralled with looking at pictures of various rodents on the web.

It’s not exactly an illegal activity but one guinea pig in the house is enough! And of course, it’s an inappropriate use of time when her homework isn’t done. So I gave MAX a test. I opened a web browser on my computer, logged into the manager screen, and cut off her Internet. Moments later I heard a sigh of frustration. Our eyes met across the crowded room, and she knew she needed to get back to work.

The amazing thing is I could have checked what she was doing from Timbuktu (assuming I had an Internet connection there). All I need to do is log onto MAX, look at the “Reports” tab and I can see how each member of my family is spending time on the Internet. Has someone’s been chatting for an hour instead of doing their math? A push of a button solves the problem.

Many other options are available such as setting time of day usage, or creating email addresses—a service Max provides as your ISP, but also offers strict spam and content filtering to avoid unwanted mail messages. One account also allows you to install MAX on all the computers in your home with no additional charges.

Matt Stanley emphasizes that MAX isn’t a babysitter, and underscores the need for parents to always keep tabs on their family’s Internet habits. But at least this filtering option, with it’s various levels of protection, should prevent those nasty surprises from popping up on your computer screen.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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