Keeping children safe from predatory adults in online communication is a service in high demand, but in order for children to participate the parental control needs to be kept to a minimum. IMSafer is a service that launched today and promises to filter IM communication for conversation deemed potentially predatory. The company says it worked with law enforcement specialists to develop its filtering rules and some of them are quite interesting – the phrase “you’re a good girl” is believed to be common language for building a dominance/submission based relationship, for example. Only questionable excerpts from IM conversations will be shown to parents; the company hopes that this relative privacy will help buy-in from kids.
When an offending statement is made, an email alert is sent to the parent in real time. The IMSafer dashboard displays conversation excerpts that the system believes are unsafe. The parent can then vote on whether they believe the conversation to be inappropriate and those votes go into a common pool tied to IM screen names. Other parents will be notified if their child enters into conversation with someone who has had conversation filtered and voted as inappropriate by any other IMSafer participating parent.
IMSafer is a Windows desktop application and it couldn’t be easier to begin using. It currently detects and tracks IM conversations going through Microsoft clients, AIM and Yahoo! Support for MySpace, GTalk, Skype and Mac is forthcoming, the company says. The MySpace filtering tool is ready but hasn’t been pushed to the IMSafer client yet and MySpace IM use is relatively limited.
The program is free initially and the company says it hopes to build a critical mass of users before requiring payment. Houston, Texas based founder Brandon Watson took angel funding from past contacts from his time working at Soros and Microsoft. The company will soon begin distributing free copies to pilot school districts in hopes that parents will want to be able to have a seemless monitoring system between home and school use. While multiple screen names can be tracked at home, the company is working on a tool to associate different screen names across school and home to notify parents. IMSafer is also in talks with PC manufacturers. The company will soon begin offering free SMS alerts and premium features like VOIP call alerts and a special filter for bullying.
Obviously children could get around this type of monitoring, but the company advises that parents tell their children it’s in use and that they are not spying on entire conversations. Will children accept this? I won’t pretend to know how to manage the little beasts, I can barely stand the obstinance of my dog. But IMSafer’s approach does sound smart. There is no fail-safe solution and I would think that many children will appreciate the hands-off approach of IMSafer. Some people contend that educating children to watch out for themselves is the only effective way to keep them safe, but given how difficult it can be to watch out for your own interests in conversation between adults it’s clearly not sufficient to put all responsibility on self defense by children. While much of the system is based on family trust, Watson also told me that his team used to be the geeky kids trying to get around systems like this and IMSafer was built with that kind of knowledge. For further discussion on kids an online safety check out BlogSafety.com
In demand, easy to use, apparently effective, relatively appealing to children and aimed at some solid distribution channels. Sounds like a particularly viable service to me.