The internet trap my daughter is falling into...

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I think when a parent tells a child that something is “good" or “cool" their immediate reaction is to disbelieve it. I guess I must have done that to my parents, though I cannot remember any specifics there, certainly my children do it to me. I have had broadband at home with a computer available to be used by them any time for a few years now, but it has been underused. When I tell them what an amazing resource the internet is, do they believe me? No... of course not. I am only a parent after all.

But recently things have been changing! And not all for the better...

You can imagine my amazement when my 11 year old daughter requested help getting an IM client up and running. Obviously her friends at her new school have told her about these wonderful things that can be done over the internet, so her interests have been ignited. While taking the normal sensible precautions I feel a caring parent should take—like warning her of the not-so-good people in chat rooms, telling her it is OK to discuss things with me and encouraging her to do so, not to secretly arrange meetings without my knowledge, the possible consequences of not doing these things and generally educating her—I helped her install and setup some programs. I will add on a side note, I don’t believe in using “censorship" programs as I know how unaffective they can be. I think it’s far better simply to educate.

However, she seems to have fallen into a trap—not of the horrific type I’ve just hinted at—but a proprietary format trap.

My daughter will ONLY use the latest version of MSN. And, of course, as far as I can tell ONLY Microsoft XP supports it. Why? Because you can do things like blow kisses and post pictures and so on. When I say things like “why don’t you get you and your friends to use something more open like Google Talk?", she looks at me blankly and says in an uncommitted way that she will. But I know she won’t.

All of her friends—well the ones in this “group", which is only four or five at the moment but likely to increase—use MSN and like the extra features. They will not give them up. I have no problems with my daughter using feature rich IM clients (so long as there is no spyware and the like). What I have a problem with is that she is in the process of being conned. Microsoft are unlikely EVER to release the protocols to their advanced features, making it impossible for anyone else to create a better product that my daughter can use. She is in effect tied down to Microsoft, and can only move if ALL of her friends do. We are stuck paying the Microsoft Tax or else I risk upsetting, and isolating, my daughter. This benefits no-one but Microsoft.

I don’t go for the argument that Microsoft needs to do this in order to ensure technological investment. If they have a better product, people will pay to use it. I don’t see why they need to force people in this way. In most other industries this would be illegal, why not the IT industry?

Unencumbered protocol and file format standards are essential to freedom. Information technology is no longer a luxury item, it is an essential part of our day to day existence. No part of it can be cornered indefinitely by one entity. To do that would hold the world to ransom.

An example of this is Microsoft’s shenanigans over the Massachusetts OpenDocument decision. Why don’t they just incorporate OpenDocument into their Office products? It would be simple for them to do. If a one-man-band frenchman can do it then surely a multi-billion dollar company can. The only reason I can think of is they want to kill OpenDocument, because they want to achieve with companies in the office suite world what they have achieved with my daughter in the IM one. They want to lock people into their products by making the formats proprietary, and thus force people to buy from them in the future regardless of the price or how good the competition will be.

I have no problems with people cornering the market with innovative products that are good to use. MSN’s features are good. I was impressed when my daughter’s friend blew a kiss on my daughter’s monitor. OK - not the most useful implementation of modern technology, but still impressive. I am also excited by Microsoft’s “ribbon" in their next Office suite to replace the menubar and toolbars. It looks like quite an exciting piece of design. It will not stop the exodus to but it may slow it a bit. These are good innovations deserving reward. What I think is VERY wrong is the “once you’ve gone down this route your stuck for life" technology Microsoft is trying to force through use of their proprietary formats. In this regard, it puts them on par with drug dealers. It’s this which needs to be stopped.

My daughter is discovering the internet. I am excited with her about it. I have warned her about the bad guys and can help her deal with them. The problem I have is with warning her about the bad mega-corporations and trying to help her to avoid being trapped by them.



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Comment from: Dave Guard [Member]

2005-10-31 @ 12:26
I've already overheard my seven year old son saying things like "Those files won't work at school because we use Windows at school" and "We can't chat to Poppa while he's in Africa because he uses MSN and we use Ubuntu".

While I know there are generally ways around these issues, it's still shocking to hear this sort of stuff coming from a seven year old.

Thankfully he's at least being given the opportunity to know that there is an alternative to the proprietary world.

So many adults have no idea what free software is. So to have children that are even aware of it is a fantastic thing.

We should do what Microsoft does - we should get to them while they're young.

Then we'll only have one more step to achieving world domination!

Comment from: Vincent [Visitor] ·

2005-11-04 @ 19:04
Lol, my parents are techno-fobes, but I'm a very strong supporter of open-source (16 years old, since yesterday :D ). What I've noticed is that because I (and a friend of me) am such a strong supporter of open-source that my other friend is a M$ fanatic all of a sudden, just because we're so positive about it :P . Anyway, at least you know there are some children that still have sense. If you look at the forum I set as URL, that's full of kids like me.

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Edward Macnaghten's picture


Edward Macnaghten has been a professional programmer, analyst and consultant for in excess of 20 years. His experiences include manufacturing commercially based software for a number of industries in a variety of different technical environments in Europe, Asia and the USA. He is currently running an IT consultancy specialising in free software solutions based in Cambridge UK. He also maintains his own web site.