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Netpal? No Thanks

Friday, June 19, 2009
The Disney Netpal gives me the creeps.
Now, I realize that’s a strong statement, given that I’m inordinately fond of my Pal Mickey, which is surely one of the creepiest toys I’ve ever seen, right up there with that annoying little teddy bear from AI (and no, I don’t want to talk about how that all ended up, but per usual I digress).
Many of the Netpal’s features are, in fact, cool and useful. It runs a commonly-available operating system (Windows XP Home), so in theory you should be able to install plenty of third-party software applications. It’s got a spill-proof keyboard, and promises to protect your data if you drop the darn thing (I notice no promises, however, about protecting the machine itself). It has your standard WiFi connection, but then again doesn’t everything nowadays? And the price is somewhere around the sort of ballpark you’d expect, assuming that you’re expecting to pay that Disney premium.
But I think what creeps me out about the Netpal is how thoroughly it incorporates Disney’s corporate hegemony into your child’s (or your!) internet browsing experience. From the press release reprinted at Gizmodo:
The Disney Magic Desktop installed on the Disney Netpal by ASUS is an easy-to-use interface specifically tailored to kids, with an intuitive visual interface and instructions that make it easy for kids to operate the computer. Right out of the box, the Disney browser launches numerous kid-friendly Disney websites for kids to explore.
Not a big problem, right? It’s just a set of pre-installed bookmarks that plenty of kids will want anyway. But there’s more:
The Disney Netpal also allows parents to create a web-safe computing environment with 40 parental control options. Parents can pre-select email correspondence options, browsers, the websites their kids visit and the programs they use. These permissions can also be scheduled on a calendar, providing parents with a convenient, automated means of granting access on the days and times that they choose. Parents can also pull up data to determine where children spent time, and for how long. Additional websites can be added for access, but only if the parent approves and submits the request within the password-protected system.
Who could argue against parental controls that create a web-safe computing environment for kids? Not me, unless, well, that parental control system is designed by a corporation with a vested interest in making sure your kids are interested in their content, and theirs alone. How many parents will make sure that their kids have access to PBS, or National Geographic, or other sites with more significant educational content? How many will just leave it set on the default access, either because they don’t give it a second thought, or have forgotten the password and don’t want to deal with technical support?
There’s also that little matter of usability. Of course they say it’s user-friendly, but let’s just hope that whoever designed the Netpal’s user interface is not in any way affiliated with the “specifically tailored to kids” Disney XD, a website which I find practically user-hostile.

Finally, let’s also not forget that any purposeful action will produce some unintended consequences. After all, no parental controls are perfect, and spam-filters are often just one step behind the enemy. One reader at Gizmodo speculates: “Now the Disney can be permanently affiliated with the porn that finds your kid.” Surely this isn’t where Disney wants to take the brand.