There would most certainly be a drag on free speech. But credit card thieves, child pornographers, and other Web criminals would think twice before embarking on illegal activities. That Internet just might be a place you could let your kids play without supervision. That's exactly the kind of closed, fully accountable, non-anonymous universe Steve Valerie is trying to create with Kids Online America.
Ford Motor Company ushered in a new Web era in February - the era of Internet access as employee benefit. The car maker announced it would offer $5 per month Internet access to all employees, and several Fortune 500 companies have since followed suit. But Valerie wants to take the concept one step further. Starting this week, companies around the country will begin offering his Kids Online America (KOLA) service as an employee benefit. Employees will pay $4 a month or less, and in some cases, receive the online service for free.
KOLA is yet another in a long line of attempts to make the Internet "kid-safe." Numerous software packages, like NetNanny, are designed to automatically prevent children from accessing the seedier sites on the Net, using one of various blocking mechanisms. Other services, such as the Disney Internet Guide, work in the opposite direction, suggesting or even limiting children to a specific set of pre-approved Web sites.
Valerie's service is akin to the Disney Guide, but with some significant differences, he maintains. By agreeing to surrender their anonymity, KOLA members can be more comfortable about who their children are talking to online.
"We're about a unique form of member acquisition. We have a built-in accountability mechanism that says you've been invited," he said. KOLA will only be sold as an employee benefit to families. That way, chat rooms and discussion boards will only be populated by like-minded families.
In fact, children will be speaking to like-aged children. Each family member has their own profile, and content editors populate five different "worlds" with age-specific content in age ranges 5-7, 8-10, 11-13, 14-17, and adult. Children can only visit approved Web sites within each channel, but parents can alter the choices their children get.
What children might stumble into while surfing has long been a hot-button issue for corporations and Washington politicians. Just last week the Federal Trade Commission issued rules restricting the way Web sites can glean private information from children. Legitimate Web sites wanting to watch child purchasing habits, for example, must get written permission from parents first. Such FTC oversight was mandated by the 1998 Child Online Protection Act.
But Valerie said FTC rules will hardly protect children from illegitimate companies or seedier elements on the Internet.
His service is still in beta testing, but already KOLA has lined up a significant partnership. On Tuesday, the firm announced a deal with Bright Horizons, a benefits package company with 70 Fortune 500 clients. Bright Horizons will begin reselling the online service to its clients - ultimately giving KOLA access to 4 million families - and the firm will immediately offer it for free to 40,000 families that utilize Bright Horizons company-related day care centers.
"We've been approached by a lot of people in this space, but KOLA has the best sensitivity to what children need," said Roger Brown, CEO of Bright Horizons. "When KOLA showed up and I thought the world is going to want to have this ... Our clients reaction has been very enthusiastic."
Since content included in the KOLA channels is selected by employees of the service - with help from an educational association - Valerie anticipates complaints from some users who think editors are either too lenient or too strict. But parents will be able to call a customer service line and have content selections immediately updated, so he thinks that will satisfy most complaints.
"It's not about being Big Brother. It's about the fact that those parents know when children go on KOLA they've been pre-screened," he said. And, he added, parents will still need to be actively involved, because the service won't be perfect protection. "Sure, the risk still exists that someone on the service might go into a chat room and pose as a child. But the difference is they're going to think twice about going on KOLA because of the way the network was built. It's so much easier to go to another online service and create another anonymous profile."
KOLA users currently must connect by dialing in through a special access number; Interne-based access is coming later this year, according to Valerie.