This is an important decision. The two major players in this arena are, of course, Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Other choices out there include NCSA Mosaic, Opera, Web-TV and about twenty other little known and little used browsers. Their combined market share is so small that it may add up to only 15% or so of the total browser market, if that. So, for the purpose of this discussion, the big two are all we intend to cover. Anything else is uncharted territory and you are entirely on your own should you choose to use anything other than the big two. Future editions of this book will probably include Web-TV depending on how quickly it catches on.
Stand alone browsers are used to view content when connected with a standard Internet Service Provider or ISP. Worldcom, Earthlink and MSN are examples of the many ISP’s. They connect you to the Internet through their modem dial-up pools but provide no premium or proprietary content to their subscribers. Just the connection. Once connected you need to use a browser to view content on the Internet. Some ISP’s send you one or both of the two main browsers private labeled which automatically brings up the dialer when you launch the browser program.
Also worth mention here are the proprietary browsers which are part of premium services like Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online. The benefit of these services is that they offer methods of screening content based on age as part of the service which can be tailored to the requirements of each family member. The primary account holder need only set the criteria for the user names of family members under the main account. Third party content providers who wish their content to be integrated into the premium service must conform to the rating standards set forth by the premium service. They don’t get a choice.
Premium service content is also very neatly laid out, indexed and easy to find which is well suited to the new online computer user. Most of us, however, eventually graduate to a standard ISP once we learn how to navigate the web and find what we need without having it spoon fed to us. There is also the well documented problem of dial-up congestion and frequent service outages with the premium content providers. Usually the last straw that causes many of us to finally jump ship and swear them off for ever.
As far as browsing is concerned, for the most part both browsers render content the same way on your computer screen and the differences which do exist are barely worth mention. Where they differ is in the methods used to control content. Instead of it being a part of the premium content providers’ service, it is now the job of your browser software to do the screening. Unfortunately, the rating of free lance material on the web at large is, at present, completely voluntary. For the screening system to work both parties must hold up their end of the bargain. Authors must include the tags and rate their content and browsers must be set properly to filter any content we decide is inappropriate for our schools and families. Pressure from public interest groups and the threat of government intervention has done much to “encourage” voluntary cooperation from the content development community as a whole and to adopt policies of self regulation and conformance to standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium (or W3C) and other self governing bodies for the Internet. Most authors are responsible about including these rating tags for new content but still, much content remains out there which is unrated. The best approach to dealing with unrated content is to block it entirely and allow it only on a case by case basis. Sorry, but this does require supervision. Them’s the breaks.
MSIE version 4.0 comes bundled with a PICS (the Platform for Internet Content Selection) filtering standard set by RSACi which stands for the Recreational Software Advisory Council, Internet (www.rsac.org). This standard is rather coarse and is has gained far less acceptance than standards like SafeSurf. If you are browsing with MSIE and encounter a web site rated by SafeSurf, MSIE will report it as unrated. MSIE also does not allow separate files for bookmarks even though users log on with individual user names. Nor does it allow you to set different ratings for different users. It’s one for all. Take it or leave it. On the plus side, SafeSurf can be added free of charge by visiting www.safesurf.com but the bookmark limitation remains. If the PICS ratings of Internet Explorer 4.x offered similar user dependency to that of the Outlook Express e-mail client it comes with, that would elevate my opinion of it substantially. Then, the browser settings of each user could be tailored to each user specificlly.
Netscape Communicator, by contrast, comes bundled with RSACi as well as SafeSurf, the most widely accepted rating system on the net, bar none. It allows very fine tuning of content rating. Also, if you configure Netscape for both ratings systems, and there is certainly no reason not to, web sites need only be rated by one of the two systems to pass through the Netscape filter, not both. Netscape permits setting up multiple users each of whom can be required to enter a password before starting the program with their user name. Each can be assigned privileges of their own, and users can have their own bookmarks, address books and e-mail folders.
From the standpoint of controlling access to content for more than one user, the choice, I believe, is clear. Ultimately, though, it really comes down to a matter of preference more than anything else. If you’re comfortable with the Microsoft product, Chapter 7 explains how to configure it properly. If you prefer to use Netscape for browsing as I do, you can skip to Chapter 8.