July 21, 2008

Firefox add-on Glubble too clunky and restrictive as a children's Internet filter

Author: Tina Gasperson

Glubble is a free proprietary Firefox add-on from Glaxstar that limits the activity your child can perform online by blocking access to Web sites and filtering Google search results. For parents, a tool like Glubble can seem like the perfect answer to the problem of protecting kids from the unsavory elements of the Internet. But as I discovered through my use of Glubble, the questions surrounding the idea of Internet filtering don't come with easy answers.

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Obtaining Glubble and getting it installed is easy. Download the Firefox add-on from Glubble.com and click Install. Create a Glubble account for yourself, and one for each child that will use the service. Glubble starts running right away, on top of the Firefox browser, setting up an initial "walled garden" consisting of a few dozen well-known sites for elementary-age children, and a more relaxed account for you, the parent. From there you can add or delete sites as you wish, with different configurations for each child, and each gets his or her own "secret homepage," as Glubble calls it. Children access their account by clicking on a tab at the top of the browser, which restarts Firefox (to disable any other running add-ons) and creates a secure environment tailored specifically for each child. The parental account can see and monitor what each child does, and children can customize their homepages with thumbnail pictures, or request that certain sites be added to the walled garden.

Glubble does a fairly good job of finding fun kids sites and allowing access to them. Glaxstar has its own editorial department that hand-picks the sites on the default access list. However, I found that many of the games and animations on these sites don't work in the Glubble interface, though they work just fine in Glubble-less Firefox. What happens when you turn a young child loose on a site like Barbie.com and she tries to play the games but they don't work? She clicks on the pretty banner ads, and ends up on an ecommerce site (strangely unfiltered by Glubble) trying to input her name and mailing address. Forget about blocking ads in Glubble, since, as I mentioned earlier, it disables all other extensions whenever a child logs into their account.

Technically speaking, Glubble does what it is supposed to do: it sets up a very strict, across-the-board filtering system that locks a user into some rigid constraints with no way out of those constraints without the master password. Theoretically, a parent could set her small child in front of Glubble with a few basic instructions, walk away, and not worry about the child stumbling on something they shouldn't.

But as the mother of five children who are very familiar with the Internet, I have found that it is not the children in Glubble's target audience (elementary school age) who need protection from the dangers of the Internet the most. Really young children usually cannot type URLs without assistance, and haven't learned how (or why) to access search engines, the really "dangerous" part of the Internet. The real danger begins later, when a child is old enough to figure out that you can type "bad words" into Google or YouTube and come up with some interesting results. Glubble basically squashes the effectiveness of the young child's Internet experience, not through its site filtering, but through a clunky interface that leaves kids scratching their heads and getting up from the computer, or calling on Mom over and over again for help. And isn't that exactly what Glubble is supposed to prevent -- the need for direct parental supervision? Maybe there's no good substitute for parental involvement.

Unfortunately as well, the middle-school-aged children who need protection the most, but also have greater online needs, such as performing research on a homework project, are underserved by a product like Glubble. Sure, it blocks any suggestion of adult material, but it also blocks just about everything else at the same time. I have never been comfortable with the idea of some editorial board deciding what my kids should and should not see. Sometimes it is in context and quite desirable for them to see information about mature topics, but Internet filters, including Glubble, do not allow for context.

Since my 12-year-old son is not interested in NickJr.com or much of anything else that Glubble lets through the gates from go, in order to make Glubble work for him I have to spend an inordinate amount of time customizing it. Say he needs to do research on the American Revolution. He types "revolution" into the Google search bar on his super cool secret homepage -- and gets zero results. OK, then he tries "war." Zero. And he's calling for Mom. Once again, the need for direct parental involvement in my children's Internet activities becomes evident. That's no surprise to me; I just thought maybe I'd try one more time.

Glubble seems cool on the surface, but once you've spent more than 30 minutes with it, it becomes obvious that Glubble is at best clunky and at worst completely useless.

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