You've purchased a computer and now you want to get on the Internet. Great! But which Internet Service Provider (ISP) is right for your family? Maybe you're already online. But you and your family have been surfing without safeguards. Fortunately, you haven't stumbled onto anything offensive, but you know it's there and it's too easy to find. Or maybe a friend has wandered into an area they shouldn't have. Now you want to do more to protect your family. Where do you turn?
In the last few years, a new breed of Internet Service Providers has developed. The family-friendly ISP offers a new level of protection for you and your family. These new ISPs do the work of blocking offensive sites and screening search results for you. Some even block chat and filter e-mail. Most block more than "adult" or pornographic sites, screening for sites that include: graphic violence, drug use, criminal activities, profanity, homosexuality, hate, gambling, and other dangerous content.
When you log on to the Internet using a family-friendly ISP, your call is routed through their server. There, the content of your browsing is filtered. Most ISPs use software containing a list of offensive sites that is updated daily. If a site is on the list, your browser will indicate that you cannot access that site or that it cannot be found. Offensive links and search results are blocked. Many add a second level of filtering by screening for inappropriate words. This helps guard against new sites that haven't made it to the list, and chat rooms.
Most family-friendly ISPs use the same list of offensive sites. Where they differ is in how they apply them. Some are stricter than others. For example, some filter gambling and others do not.
All family-friendly ISPs filter Internet content. Zachary Britton, author of Safety Net: Guiding and Guarding Your Children on the Internet, suggests that for an ISP to be truly family-friendly they also need to provide places for people to go online. A few have attempted to do so, but, because of cost, most have not. Though not an ISP, Crosswalk (www.crosswalk.com) offers an example of what one could do. Crosswalk is unique in that you can log on to their site using any Internet Service Provider. Using their Crossing Guard filtering system, you can safely surf the Internet. Crosswalk's site offers a wealth of online sites, filtered by a family-friendly search engine. This is not a perfect solution. Because Crosswalk is not an ISP, you can get around the Crossing Guard.
Unfortunately, it's not easy to find a family-friendly ISP. There isn't a master list. Though many call themselves national, that doesn't mean they are in all or most communities. It means they offer access in more than one region of the country. In addition to the national ISPs, there are many local and regional providers.
When searching for a family-friendly ISP, start with your friends. Ask them who they use and if it is a blocking ISP. Look up Internet Service Providers in the phone book. Call around to find the ones offering family-friendly access. National ISPs may not be listed in the local phone book. You'll have to look them up on the Internet. If you don't have Internet service, go to the library or ask a friend to do a search for family-friendly ISPs in your area. You might want to start with those listed in the sidebar.
If a family-friendly ISP is not available in your community, there are alternatives. Purchase and learn to use good blocking/monitoring software. Two that appear to be effective are CYBERsitter (for PC's) and Surf Watch (for Mac's).
Family-friendly ISPs aren't perfect. More than 200 new pornographic sites are posted every day, and it is possible for a site to slip through undetected. They cannot control the amount of time individuals spend online. They don't track where someone has been on the Internet. Many filter only some chat and newsgroups. They don't guard against your children giving out personal information. Savvy teens can get around them by subscribing to a different ISP without your knowledge. Zachary Britton points out that with most family-friendly ISPs, "one size fits all." They may filter too much or not enough for your values.
Experts recommend that you don't depend solely on software or a family-friendly ISP to do all the work for you. Make it part of an overall Internet protection plan. Put the computer in the family room with the screen facing where anyone walking by can see it. Talk as a family and set some ground rules. Consider adding blocking/monitoring software to your family friendly ISP as another level of protection. Such software helps block chat, forums, FTP sites, and personal information. Use the timer feature to limit when and how long each family member is online. For more information on protecting your family, see Zachary Britton's book Safety Net or visit his web site at www.kidshield.com.
Though there has been an explosion of family-friendly ISPs, Christians are not signing up. According to Steve Hewitt, editor of Christian Computing Magazine, many people make excuses for not using them. Some complain that they're too slow. Others believe they don't have a problem with gambling or pornography. But you can't say, "It won't happen to me or to anyone in my family." The reality is that it can. Even if it doesn't, Steve contends that people should get behind family-friendly ISPs and support them. They are providing a ministry and a service to the community.
"Remember," Zachary Britton observes, "if you, as a parent, don't actively protect your children on the Internet, they will come across offensive material. Intentionally or unintentionally, they will encounter it. They will lose their innocence if you don't take active steps. Be pro-active."
Questions to Ask Before Signing Up
1. What do you stand for as a company? What are your values?
2. How "strict" is your filtering? Though most companies use the same "list", they apply it differently.
3. Do you have chat room and e-mail filtering? Do you block personal information? One Internet danger is the lure of kids and adults away from their family by contacts made on the Internet. If your ISP doesn't provide such filtering, you'll want to add blocking/monitoring software to your computer.
4. Is your service customizable? Can you select the level of filtering?
5. Can you report offensive sites? Can you request reconsideration of a blocked site?
6. What other features do you offer? Some offer multiple e-mail addresses, the ability to override the filter, or limited free web site hosting. If these features are important to you, make sure you ask ahead of time.
7. What connection speeds do you offer? If you're looking for 56 Kbps and they offer only 28.8, you won't be happy. Check their plans for future upgrades.
8. What are your tech support hours? Is it a toll-free call? Eight to five tech support will not work if you're on the Internet primarily in the evenings.
9. How much does it cost? Prices vary, so compare features. Family-friendly ISPs typically run a few dollars more than others.
10. What is the minimum contract length? Don't commit to a long-term contract. You may find their filtering is too strict or not strict enough, they've oversubscribed their service, they have slower connection speeds, or lack adequate tech support. You don't want to lock into a service that isn't right for you.
Places to Begin
Here is a sampling of national Family-Friendly ISPs. This list is not exhaustive. There are many other national, as well as regional or local, family-friendly Internet Service Providers. Remember that national doesn't necessarily mean they are in your area. It simply means they have access in more than one region of the country.*
For a list of other family-friendly ISPs, check out the following two sites.
Focus on the Family Citizen Link
* The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention has not reviewed the companies on this list, and offers no endorsement of the companies or services listed.