KidSafe: No Choice At All

Four centuries ago, a guy named Thomas Hobson ran a messenger service out of Cambridge, England. Since this was four centuries ago, messages were delivered via horse; between message runs, Hobson rented out the horses to students. But Hobson refused to let the students play favorites: you could take the horse closest to the stable door, or you could take a hike.

Those wisecracking Cambridge scholars called this practice "Hobson's Choice." Like so many other slang terms devised by students -- nerd springs to mind -- Hobson's Choice survives to this day, now meaning any situation in which one is presented with a choice that really is no choice at all.

But what does this little detour into the history of slang have to do with the Mac? Not much -- except that if you type "Hobson's choice" into Sherlock when you're running Apple's new KidSafe system, you can't find a single Web site on the subject.

Recently I spent an eye-popping afternoon surfing the Web with KidSafe, one of the tools in Apple's new suite of made-for-the-Internet iTools. Here's how KidSafe is being sold to the public: Rather than set down faulty filters on the whole wide Web, Apple has decided to let the kiddies splash about a pre-filtered pool of sites. This way, they have the "freedom" to surf through the 55,000 already-approved sites, or more if Mom and Dad decide to add URLs to their KidSafe settings.

The 55,000 reviewed sites do not include search engines or portals: as bland as Lycos appears to the untutored eye, its search engine leads to unbelievably sinister results for any kid with enough time, motivation and creativity. The 55,000 sites don't include e-commerce sites, something that every parent raising a Pokemon junkie is undoubtedly grateful for. And the 55,000 sites don't include personal home pages.

So there I was, surfing the KidSafe version of the World Wide Web, cozy in the knowledge that I was going to find only those sites that had been judged worthy by a group of anonymous consultants. The KidSafe documentation assures its users that the consultants are a group of "certified teachers and librarians." Precisely what these certifications are is left to the reader's imagination, as is the average educational background or Internet literacy amongst these consultants, their subject fields and the depth of their expertise.

It's a little disconcerting to be surfing a Web cobbled together by faceless people who will never be held directly accountable for their work. Some might argue that the whole World Wide Web is that way -- there are no entry barriers to putting up a site, and no central governing bodies to hold people accountable if they're posting false data or running an e-commerce scam. But there's a fine distinction: on the regular World Wide Web, I can click as I please, and judge sites for myself. On KidSafe, someone has already made that call for me -- and I have no idea who.

The resulting collection of sites is both confusing and bland. Since one searches for KidSafe sites via Sherlock, there is no fast, neat way to find all the Sherlock-approved sites for a specific topic. I ran one search on "computing history" and came up with an entomology site -- which would have been funny if I had been doing a search for computer bugs -- and 99 other informative sites that had nothing to do with the history of computing. Since there was no directory, I had no idea if I had just phrased my query wrong, or if the anonymous panel of experts hadn't gotten around to evaluating sites like the one I was looking for.

I have one site in my bookmark file that does an excellent job of pulling together background materials that recount computing history -- the site has all sorts of stuff, from time lines to white papers to historical addresses to photographs. It's maintained by Mike Muuss, who wrote the ubiquitous networking utility ping, among other things. So not only does this man maintain a computer history archive, he's also earned a place in it. Since he runs the site as a personal labor of love, it's barred from KidSafe's canon, as are all the historic links he includes on his site.

Mike Muuss's site demonstrates KidSafe's core weakness: it doesn't get the Web. The experts may be judging material to make sure it has "acceptable content and educational relevance," but they're ignoring the hypertext utility and the personal passion driving some of the Web's greatest experiences. Surfing on Sherlock is a jerky process: go to a site, click on an interesting link, get blocked from surfing because the hyperlink's URL wasn't KidSafe, lather, rinse, repeat. That's not surfing; that's a sadistic user experience.

If I wanted sadistic user experiences, I'd use Windows. I use a Macintosh because it's made working on a computer easy; it created obvious metaphors for file organization and running the computer's operating system, and thus simplified the task of using the computer for non-computing activities. It's obvious Apple is trying to parlay their reputation for friendly computing into the online arena: now that you have the safe'n'friendly iMac, visit the safe'n'friendly Web!

However, Apple's overlooking one key detail in this progression from desktop to Web. One of the reasons Macs became so popular is because they provided a simple way to make a computer do things. The Mac interface mediates between the computer and the user, translating alien computer transactions into understandable actions like dropping and dragging objects. The interface makes tasks simpler, but it doesn't strip features out -- there's nothing preventing Mac users from using their computers to perform powerful and intricate tasks.

iTools is trying to provide the same sort of mediation to make the Web safer -- not a bad goal in a world where animated GIFs are permitted to loop freely. Unfortunately, instead of making the key strengths of the Web accessible, KidSafe has eliminated them. Even worse, KidSafe gives users the impression that they're choosing where they can go on the Internet, when they really have no choice at all.

One can only hope that people realize this before installing KidSafe. After all, once you've installed KidSafe, there's no way to realize that the choice you've made is Hobson's Choice.

Macworld.com Senior Editor LISA SCHMEISER ( lisa_schmeiser@macworld.com ) is a veteran Web and information designer who has written for Macworld, Salon.com, TeeVee, and various other sites not appearing in KidSafe's list of allowed sites.
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