I received a copy of an e-mail recently from a parent who was upset that AOL had sent his daughter directions how to turn off parental controls on AOL. He wanted to know why AOL would do this - without verifying who was requesting the instructions - so I called to find out more. Here's what I discovered.
AOL will make the instructions available to anyone who wants them. The instructions are also available online. And, according to AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein, the AOL employee sending the instructions to the teenager did nothing more than make immediately accessible to the girl instructions that she could have found on its Web site.
The thing is, she couldn't have used them - which is why her age wasn't checked.
"No one can turn off parental controls except the person who set them up in the first place," Weinstein said. "She would have to have logged onto the master screen and used the screen name and password to get into it."
He said the instructions sent to her are meaningless without knowing these things. And even the masterscreen page is not accessible to children or teens when they've logged in using their own usernames and passwords.
"This parent's concern is equivalent basically to saying the child found the auto manual to my car," he said. "Without the key to the car, and without the parent's password, there is no way to modify the kid's control."
How did the parent come to know his daughter has requested said instructions? He found them on the printer.
"I was so flabbergasted," he said.
The Carson City man does not know if his daughter identified herself as an adult in the e-mail. According to Weinstein, it wouldn't have mattered.
"Here's my question," the concerned parent said. "Shouldn't AOL know beforehand when they e-mail out these instructions who they're sending them to? I was so heated about it."
In my phone conversation, I asked him if he was irritated enough that he would switch to a different service.
He said he would change all his accounts to Microsoft Outlook, which he believes has a better parental-control system.
But Weinstein said the parent wouldn't find anything different at Outlook - that parental controls are handled the same way at all Internet services.
I call Microsoft to find out if this were true. And after 15 minutes and 32 seconds of waiting, I found myself with someone from the Rapid Response Team. After several more minutes, and an explanation that he would have to consult his team, my name was taken, and I was told I would receive a follow-up call.
And here I am ... still waiting to hear back from Microsoft about its parental controls, although I've received a call back twice from the same guy wanting to know more so that the team could correctly answer my questions.
So much for a "rapid response."
I should've just gone with my first inclination - saying that I was a parent, instead of a reporter wanting to get an answer.