AOL goes PG with access to Internet

April 06, 1994|By James Coates | James Coates,Chicago Tribune

America Online's programmers are putting the final touches on something that's going to blow the socks off a lot of delighted subscribers of the country's third-largest computer hangout.

We're talking here nothing less than point-and-click access to the roughly 2,500 Internet newsgroups that are one of the great treasures to be had on the vaunted network of computer networks.

Unfortunately, this new wrinkle to America Online is going to blow the minds of a lot of parents who view the service as an asset for educating their children in meeting the challenges of computerization.

Parents who heretofore have encouraged their children to explore on-line possibilities suddenly face the prospect of their offspring stumbling onto a database of pedophilic fiction, gay and lesbian chat boards and Neo-Nazi skinhead propoganda.

The Internet can be a strange realm. It was pioneered by college students, computer hackers and more than a few high-tech malcontents. As a result cyberspace can become a down and dirty repository of tasteless language, crude topics and anti-social meanderings.

Now millions of mainstream Americans are entering this realm thanks to services such as America Online, and substantial culture shock can be expected. Delphi has had this type of Internet access for more than a year now, and CompuServe is on the verge of adding it as well.

The America Online Internet area is under construction as programmers work to iron out the final bugs, but it already is working very well.

You can check it out by using the keyword INTERNET and then clicking on the various icons. (There is no additional fee.) It's unclear when the service will be finished, but much already can be done there.

To explain what's going on, a primer on newsgroups is needed.

Hundreds of the computers that make up the Internet act as servers that can be used to store messages on selected topics called newsgroups. This subnetwork of the overall Internet is called Usenet.

The Usenet's newsgroups' topics are as diverse as are human interests: from recipes to discussions of artificial intelligence, folk music to particle physics.

Internet users log onto Usenet and read through already posted messages and can add messages using software called Newsreaders.

In many cases, the server computer will also send copies of every newly posted message to the e-mail addresses of all participants who subscribe to the newsgroup. This allows those with special interests to keep up with the latest developments in whatever is at hand.

In the new America Online Internet forum, you start with a menu of various categories -- art, recipes, pets, physics, music, etc. You simply move the mouse cursor to the word you want and double-click. The screen then lists the newsgroups.

The new interface is orders of magnitude easier to use than the laborious typing in of text at obscure command prompts that had been the norm. But one of the first things newcomers are going to note is no one is in charge of the Internet and there is virtually no censorship.

Pornography abounds, and to their credit, the America Online people have tried to make it hard to find.

But the service also has an expert mode that allows users to type in the name of any newsgroup and then access it.

Parents should supervise the Internet as they would TV viewing and reading materials. America Online's Internet project is far too wonderful to waste out of concern about few rotten apples in the online barrel. Just view it as Parental Guidance Required, and start clicking on those icons.

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