Norton Online Family to leave beta, remain free

Symantec's new parental control suite will take off its training wheels by Monday morning, but will remain free until the end of the year, as it hopes to encourage Internet safety discussions between parents and kids.

Editors' note: In the original version of this blog, we used the beta name for this product. The official name is OnlineFamily.Norton.

Back in February, Symantec debuted a new security program that sought to help parents talk to their kids about how they use the Internet. OnlineFamily.Norton has been a free beta since then, but this Monday at midnight, the program will leave beta and remain free at least until the end of 2009. The program was originally called Norton Family Online.

OnlineFamily.Norton makes your child's surfing habits available from any browser.

(Credit: Symantec)

This parental control suite provides parents with an interesting and possibly unique approach to online child safety. OnlineFamily.Norton does provide a blacklist, boilerplate for most parental control software. However, the suite offers more than just an On/Off switch, and provides tools that encourage communication between parents and their children.

There's a wide range of control over what sites a child can access. The restrictions can vary from a strict no-access policy that can block specific sites and site categories, to a more lenient notification e-mail sent to the parents when the child visits sites that parents merely want to be warned about. On the child's side, kids are given the option of e-mailing their parents when they're blocked--if the parents allow those e-mails in the first place.

Jody Gibney, product manager for OnlineFamily.Norton, said, "We want to encourage a different philosophical approach, encouraging parents to talk to kids instead of setting up an adversarial relationship." To further that, the program's House Rules can be customized to suit the needs of individual children within each family, a useful feature since a teenager will have different browsing and social-networking interests than an 8-year-old.

The dashboard for OnlineFamily.Norton will change slightly from the beta release, highlighting the options available to parents.

(Credit: Symantec)

It's impossible for a kid not to know that OnlineFamily.Norton is running on their computer's background, since it warns them that it's activated. The log-in process requires that the Norton Safety Minder for Windows and Mac be installed first. The program allows kids to view the House Rules independently of their parents. Parents, on the other hand, are able to see what sites their children have been visiting, including search results for terms the child has queried.

However, the program doesn't provide "reams and reams of information," as Gibney put it. "We want to provide [parents] with enough information to start a discussion without overwhelming them." The program will flag social-network profile inconsistencies, such as discrepancies in a child's stated age or name, for example.

The differences between the beta and the free version are apparently limited to interface enhancements designed to streamline the setup process and provide better access to the information that OnlineFamily.Norton collects. The free version will be available at midnight on Monday. A one-year subscription starting January 1, 2010, is expected to cost $60.

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