REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 10, 2002 — Ken Levesque recently researched a community development project for work and downloaded a software patch off the Internet -- two routine and innocuous online tasks -- when the Las Vegas-area father of three found himself inadvertently routed to pornographic Web sites.
He and his wife, Mary, know how to disregard or avoid most online pornography and other offensive content. But they worry about their children. When the daughters, all under 8 years of age, become more active on the computer, they could just as easily be faced with objectionable images and unnecessary information.
"There's no way that you can sit there and monitor them all the time," Levesque says. " There's been a deadening of people's morals and an increase in their appetite for these violent movies. It's become more of a problem with sex and violence on the Internet, and the language on network TV has gotten worse in recent years.
"Having access to parental controls would definitely be valuable to us. I would even use it myself," he says.
Microsoft knows parents want help monitoring their children's viewing and Web surfing and, as a result, has made privacy, security and parental controls integral components of many of its consumer software products, devices and services. From its ground-breaking Windows XP operating system, to the newest version of its Internet service, MSN 8, and other products -- including Microsoft TV Interactive Program Guide (IPG), Microsoft Broadband Networking and popular video game console Xbox -- Microsoft has incorporated powerful new tools for blocking obscene or objectionable media content that children might see on the Internet, on TV or elsewhere.
In today's era of always-on access to the Internet, 24-hour news programming and hundreds of satellite and cable television channels -- not all of it acceptable for youth -- many parents fight a vigilant battle to ensure that their children access educational programs and information, or at least harmless content, rather than graphic violence, obscene speech or pornography.
Not only are parents busier than ever, torn between work, errands, spouses and other family obligations, but the digital era has made monitoring children's viewing habits and restricting their options practically a full-time job. For example, there are nearly 105 million U.S. households with television sets, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and these TVs are viewed an average of almost 7 hours and 30 minutes per day, according to Nielsen Media Research, a TV audience measurement firm.
"The Internet has grown exponentially in just a few years, video games are more popular than ever and the television is arguably the world's most ubiquitous device," says Parul Shah, MSN Product Manager. "As a company, we're looking to provide ways for parents to live a contemporary existence and yet still retain control over the way they raise their children. It's more important than ever today; just look at the proliferation of content and channels out there."
A Helping Hand for Parents
Microsoft has made parental controls and other security, reliability and privacy issues a top priority for the company with its Trustworthy Computing initiative. In January, Bill Gates, the company's chairman and chief software architect, issued a call to action for the industry to focus on making technology more trustworthy for consumers so that people could feel confidant and secure when using their computers.
"If we are ever to fully realize the potential that computing offers for the world, people need to trust that it's safe to use the computer and that their family's personal information will be protected," says Richard Purcell, corporate privacy officer for Microsoft. "With enhanced parental controls and other safety features in MSN 8.0, Xbox, and other upcoming products, Microsoft is working to make computing more trustworthy by empowering parents with new tools and choices to help keep their families safe."
Microsoft's company-wide commitment to safer computing translates into a variety of different features across its portfolio of devices and services aimed at consumers.
One of Microsoft's newest offerings, and one that has been revamped to include many new parental controls, choices and safety tools for youth, is MSN 8, the company's subscription Internet access and content service.
Microsoft not only polled parents and children, but also went into their homes with anthropologists to study the way people use the Internet and their PCs, as part of a massive research project to identify areas of improvement for parental control features in the technology industry. Many of the new flexible and customizable parental control features in MSN 8 are the direct result of this research and commitment by Microsoft to its customers.
"Parents want to do the right thing to keep their kids safe on the Internet, but in the past, most solutions have been hard to implement and ineffective. MSN's new parental controls herald a generation of useful tools that provide kids with a safe environment whether they're using e-mail, instant messaging or browsing the Web," says Robin Raskin, an author and expert on family computing. "Parents will rest easier knowing that their kids are learning from and having fun on the Internet, while staying safe."
Specifically, MSN 8 offers families several parental control settings for online browsing. The controls are pre-configured for different age groups, allowing a level of control not available with the simple "on/off" parental control settings offered by other online services. Parents can allow or block access to whole Web sites or restrict access to certain pages of a particular Web site.
In addition to the Internet access flexibility, MSN 8 gives parents tools for managing children's e-mail, downloads and research by allowing parents to limit to whom a child can send e-mail, restricting the MSN Search terms and information returned based on age, and protecting children by restricting the download of applications that could contain viruses or malicious computer code. For example, parents can determine with whom their kids exchange e-mail and Instant Messaging (IM). People not on the list can't trade mails and IMs.
MSN 8 offers two other new tools: the Kids Request Line and Weekly History Report. The MSN Kids Request Line acts as a broker between child and parent, allowing kids to request changes to their online access privileges -- which may be reviewed and accepted or rejected by parents next time the adult is online. Similarly, parents may receive a Weekly History Report which lists the sites a child has visited, those that the child attempted to access but was denied due to parental blocking, a summary of to whom the child sent e-mail and instant messages, and the total amount of time the child spent online.
Continuing its commitment to family-friendly content, Microsoft created two Web sites, kids.msn.com for children under 9 years old, and kidz.msn.com for children aged 10-13.
MSN 8 also offers new firewall protection for high-speed Internet, or broadband, customers to protect users from hackers that potentially can prey on the always-on connections and static IP addresses of broadband subscribers. New anti-virus technology also scans and cleans computer viruses from emails and attachments at the server level.
"We've listened to what parents want and have responded by providing useful tools that families can use to create a safer Internet environment," Shah says. "We're proud of the powerful new parental controls in MSN 8, which make MSN a family-friendly Internet experience."
Melding Fun and Safety
Microsoft's Xbox video game system also includes controls that allow parents or guardians to restrict kids from playing violent games or from linking to other players over the Internet for multi-player gaming via Xbox Live.
Xbox is the only video game system with a built-in Parental Control System. This system allows parents to decide which games their children can play based upon industry-approved rating systems.
Because video games are more popular than ever and frequently are attacked by critics as fostering violence among youth, Microsoft is providing parents with the tools they need to block children from playing inappropriate video games.
Beyond the education and fun of MSN 8 and Xbox, Microsoft makes several other consumer devices for the home that potentially could be accessed by children. As a result, the company, as part of the ongoing Trustworthy Computing initiative, has installed powerful parental control features in many of these products.
Today television, whether delivered via traditional broadcast, satellite or cable, offers more viewing choices than ever and children and teenagers watch many hours of TV per day. Microsoft TV, a Microsoft division charged with developing software and Interactive Program Guides (IPGs) for cable and other TV operators, has developed tools for parents to limit their children's TV watching.
Microsoft TV IPG, allows consumers to block entire channels, or simply control channels based on the rating of specific programs. Parents also enjoy the ability, with the input of a PIN password, to turn off channel blocking for four-hour windows, giving adults or babysitters the opportunity to watch TV at leisure after the children have gone to bed, for example. For even greater peace of mind, parents can prevent children from making purchases via the remote control.
"Our software allows parents to restrict pay-per-view purchases, so you don't leave your kids home on Saturday night and come home to find out they've bought eight things," says Laura Norman, marketing manager for Microsoft TV.
Microsoft Windows eHome division, charged with leading the evolution of the home PC and peripherals, has developed an enhanced version of Windows XP that provides consumers with new PC entertainment options. Windows XP Media Center Edition turns a home PC into a media center that integrates digital entertainment experiences -- including live television, personal video recording (PVR), digital music, digital video, DVDs and digital photos -- with the freedom of remote control access.
Windows XP Media Center Edition offers controls that let parents choose what their kids can and can't watch. These parental controls enable live and recorded television programming to be blocked according to a series of industry-accepted ratings: Y, Y7, G, PG, 14, MA, and within those ratings, to restrict viewing according to violence, language, suggestiveness, and other criteria. Parental controls also allow DVD movies to be blocked by specific MPAA ratings (PG-13, R, etc.) The standard version of Windows XP for desktop and laptop PCs offers similar parental controls on the playback of DVDs.
Microsoft recently announced a line of products designed to help consumers quickly and easily set up a wireless home network in order to share a broadband Internet connection, files and printers among all the computers in their home.
The Microsoft Broadband Networking Wireless Base Station offers an advanced feature called client filtering, which allows users to control the Internet access of each participating computer on the network, by specifying the computer to be controlled and the time of day to which access will be restricted. Although the feature does not block specific content, it allows parents to maintain more control over their network and the activity of each connected PC. This is particularly useful if, for example, a user wanted to restrict the time of day that his or her children spend surfing the Web or playing Internet games.