Looking For Middle Ground In Forbidden Territory

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By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, November 27, 2005

Religious leaders in a tightknit Orthodox Jewish community in New Jersey have instructed parents who have Internet access in their homes to unplug from the Web, else their children will face expulsion from the area's 43 yeshivas, or Jewish private schools.

"We really . . . don't want children to see ladies who are dressed inappropriately. . . . If that one image goes into a child's head, it can wreak havoc with all the religious instruction," said Rabbi Netanya Gottlieb, one of the yeshiva principals, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

Rabbis said that the Internet is not inherently evil and acknowledged that it has some benefits for students in completing homework, but that its negatives far outweigh its positives.

The policy also prohibits students from using cell phones, Palm organizers and other handheld devices that have Internet access.

In a Talmudic compromise for adults who do business from home, the Star-Ledger reports, some exceptions may be made for parents who have only e-mail access or who promise to keep the Internet locked in a room or cabinet, like a handgun, out of reach of their children.

In many ways, the rabbis' actions are admirable -- if draconian -- and represent the kind of strictures that almost any parent could identify with. Web Watch respects individual beliefs and strong parenting. Unfortunately for the Orthodox community in Lakewood, N.J., the Internet no longer comes from just a wire. It cannot be unplugged, and attempting to police students' access to WiFi hotspots and other wireless access is about as effective as walking through a shouting crowd with your hands over your ears.

Further, denying the Internet to their children because it carries sexual content is akin to keeping them out of the Library of Congress because it shelves Playboy.

Instead, we'd recommend that the rabbis -- and, indeed, all parents -- check out software such as Kid Defender Lite, which is available for download from sites such as ZDNet and Cnet's Download.com. Kid Defender is not quite a V-chip for the Internet, and it is not infallible. However, it does allow you to monitor what your kid is watching on his computer in his bedroom from your computer in the den. Also, it lets you monitor and block instant-messaging systems and shield children from specific Web sites.

Security software makers such as McAfee and Symantec also give parents some power over what their kids see on the Internet. Comcast and AOL Internet service providers include some parental controls as well.

Putting E.T. on Hold

SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is the term for alien-hunting using radio telescopes to look for narrow-band radio signals from space -- which do not occur naturally -- and using mainframe supercomputers to analyze the data.

In 1999, a clever scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who is an alien-hunter (though "hunter" isn't quite the right term. We mean them no harm. As far as they know) realized he could create a virtual supercomputer by linking a number of home PCs via the Internet. SETI@home was launched, and alien-stalkers (hmmm . . . not much better) could download software to link themselves to the rest of the hive, er, supercomputer.

The project's leaders recently announced that it is being all but discontinued, possibly owing to the fact that, in six years, it failed to find any actual aliens (that the government told us about). If alien-predators (okay, we're doing this on purpose now) still want to look for little green men in the heavens, they can, but they have to give up PC computing time to climate change data and other Berkeley projects.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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