If you are fed up with trying to keep your kids out of harm’s way when they are using a family computer running Microsoft Windows, one option is to take a look at the Linux operating system.
In addition to the fact that you can now get a version of Linux with a web filter to protect your kids from offensive content, Linux has the advantage of being relatively free of time-wasting programs that are common to Microsoft Windows.
If you use Windows you will be familiar with the endless computer games, countless online video services like YouTube, and the never-ending music downloads that are available. And with television increasingly going on-line, the situation can only get worse.
While most responsible parents would not intentionally set up an entertainment centre in their children’s bedrooms complete with television, video, radio, arcade games and “adult services”, many are now finding they have done just that by giving their children a computer and an internet connection -– ironically, to assist with their homework.
Fortunately some versions of Linux are now reaching the point where they are not only useful for technical gurus and businesses needing cheap software to run their servers. Some distributions (or “distros” as they are commonly known) are now reasonably user-friendly and getting even more so with each new release. In some respects they can be even easier to use and install than Windows itself.
Even a couple of years ago it was still sometimes difficult in Linux to set up an internet connection. But thanks to the spread of routers which can manage your internet connection for you, in most cases a Linux user can access the internet immediately after installation.
Possibly the most user-friendly version of Linux these days is the Ubuntu distro which now comes in a special edition with child protection software pre-loaded. Although it is known as the Ubuntu “Christian Edition”, it is not only useful for Christians, but for any parent who wants to protect children.
A Linux web filter
The web filter that comes with Ubuntu CE is called Dansguardian. In theory it can be installed on any version of Linux. But those who have tried to tackle the difficult task of installing Dansguardian themselves will realise what an advantage it is to have it already set up. Even as recently as a couple of years ago, getting Dansguardian to work was a major headache. But in the latest release of Ubuntu CE it starts operating as soon as you open up the Firefox web browser. The installation even comes with a graphical interface which allows parents to change settings easily (using password protection, of course).
Our tests of Dansguardian indicate that it works fine. We used the same list of known “adult” sites that we used to test Windows Vista’s Parental Controls and it blocked them all. Then we went through all of the harmless links in our favourites list (about 100 in all) and none of them was blocked. (This, of course, does not mean that the service will make the internet 100 per cent safe for your children, but then no software can guarantee that.)
Ubuntu CE also comes loaded with all the software a child should need for their homework. The Open Office program, for instance, offers a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software that can read Microsoft office documents. It also has its own built-in dictionary and desktop publishing program called Scribus. (A great feature of Scribus is that it can output PDF files that can be printed from any computer running the free Adobe Acrobat program.)
Before we go into the advantages of Ubuntu, it should be acknowledged that it does have some drawbacks. One of the main ones is that it can be difficult to configure to share a network with Windows computers. It can also be difficult to find drivers to run some printers from Ubuntu. If you are planning to buy a new one, make sure that it is compatible. If you do want to copy files, or to print them out from a Windows-based computer on your network, the easiest solution may be to use a USB flash drive to copy the files over and then print them out. Because Ubuntu CE can read hard disks and USB drives formatted in Windows, you can plug any drive into a USB port and it should appear almost instantly on the desktop. Printing out the files you have transferred to a Windows computer is usually straightforward because, as already mentioned, most of the files created within Ubuntu (like .doc files, pdf files and html files) are compatible with Microsoft Windows.
On the positive side, the advantages of Ubuntu CE include the fact that it is almost completely immune from viruses and spyware and, like most other versions of Linux, it does not come with commercial software for playing videos, MP3s and the games created for Microsoft Windows.
As long as you set up a separate account on the computer for your kids that does not include administrator privileges, the default settings for Dansguardian will prevent them from installing new programs or even downloading executable programs from the internet. That means, if it is your wish, your kids will no longer be tempted by on-line games, music or many video services. One of the few things a user can do with the standard installation of Ubuntu CE is to play a music CD. Even commercial DVD movies won’t run.
Ubuntu CE does not even come with basic games installed, but you have the option of installing simple games, like card games. Because it is not possible to run Windows games, the latest high-tech games that can be so addictive are simply not available.
Customising your Linux
At this point you might be asking yourself if you really want to deny your family the whole entertainment revolution that is taking place on the internet. But that is not necessary. All you need to do is to have a Windows computer in a living room where the whole family can access it and where you can more easily control its use.
A further attraction for parents in installing Ubuntu CE is that, if you feel technically equipped, you can download it for free from www.christianubuntu.com and install it yourself.
You might find the default look of Ubuntu CE a bit dull-looking, but you can always tailor it to your own tastes using your favourite desktop wallpaper and so on. And if you are not comfortable having Bible quotes displayed across the top of the Firefox browser, you can easily turn them off by right clicking and un-ticking the menu item.
If you don’t feel inclined to hand your children’s computers over to the Linux without trying it out first, you will be pleased to find that the installation disk is a “Live CD” which will boot directly from your CD or DVD drive (as long as your BIOS settings have been enabled to allow it). You can then determine whether it is compatible with your hardware and test out its features.
The only other technical point you might need to know is that the installation file is an “iso” image. This is a special file that is burnt directly onto a CD. CD-burning software, like Nero, should be able to do this without any problem. But if it all sounds a bit too technical, you can always get an expert to set up a computer for you. You will probably be able to cover much of the cost with the money you save by not purchasing Windows.
One problem we did uncover with the Dansguardian internet filter is that, even though it will prevent a user from downloading most installation programs, it is still possible to install at least one Web browser plug-in program, the Macromedia Flash player. If someone is using the Firefox Web browser and clicks on an invitation to install the Flash Player, it will install as normal. This loophole requires further attention from Dansguardian, but at least you can still configure Dansguardian to block specific web sites that play Flash videos -– like YouTube and popular children’s games sites.
William West is editor of the Sydney family magazine Perspective.