I tested this feature quickly and with great caution on board a Virgin America WiFi equipped flight, being careful to shield the screen from fellow passengers and crew.
When I searched for a word that was sure to bring up porn, I was first warned that it "may return explicit adult content" and told that "to view these videos, turn off safe search." One click later, safe search was off and I was looking a page of naughty thumbnails. And, as advertised, hovering the mouse over a thumbnail started the video and audio. Even when playing in a small thumbnail, it was unmistakably hard core porn.
Of course, kids don't need Bing to find and view porn. You can find it with Google and other search engines, and even though Google has a filtered search option, there's nothing to stop someone from turning that off. But Microsoft makes it a little too easy. If moderate or strict filtering is on and you search for a filtered term, the site simply instructs you to click a link to "change your SafeSearch setting." If you configure Google for "strict filtering," a user who searches for a filtered term on Google simply sees that the word or phrase "did not match any documents." Of course a kid can always go in and change Google's settings but they have to know how to do it and bother doing it. Microsoft makes it all too easy.
I don't know if Microsoft plans to do deal with this issue in any updates, but regardless of whether your kid uses Bing, Google, or Yahoo, or just knows the URLs of porn sites, the only ways to protect your kids from accessing porn is either to watch them, educate them, or filter them.
Watching them might work with very young children but it's not exactly practical for teens or even pre-teens. I recommend that kids under eight be supervised when using a device with Internet access. Education will work with many kids but not all. Parents certainly have the right to set rules and guidelines and impose consequences if their kids access forbidden sites. But, let's face it, hormones, curiosity, and just plain interest in things sexual can have a strong pull on kids, especially teenage boys. Besides, some younger kids could stumble on porn if they use any unfiltered search engine, even if they're just looking for innocuous terms like "Barbie."
Filtering programs (or the parental controls built into Vista and Mac OS X) will block most porn sites, but it's not yet entirely clear which ones will prevent Bing from previewing such sites. Safe Eyes filtering software "blocks all pornographic content on Bing and Google searches out of the box," according to a post on its company blog. From my perch in the sky, I wasn't able to check with other filtering companies, but I'm betting some will and some won't.
Coincidentally, I'm writing this post on the way to Washington, D.C. for the first meeting of the Commerce Department's NTIA Internet Safety Working Group, which I serve on. I have a feeling this will come up at Thursday's meeting. As one of my fellow working group members, Internet Keep Safe Coalition President Marsali Hancock, said by e-mail, "as new technologies release it is critical that industry and child health advocates explore the potential impact on young developing minds and quickly respond to health and safety concerns."
I'm going to keep on top of this issue with Microsoft and the filtering companies and will report back as this story unfolds.