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July 6, 1997

Filtering software filters
more than indecency on the Web

By Timothy C. Barmann

The Communications Decency Act is history.

In a landmark decision last week, the Supreme Court agreed with a lower court's ruling that the Internet deserves the same First Amendment freedoms given to newspapers and other publications.

The decision left the issue of how to keep adult-oriented material out of the hands of children squarely in the hands of parents.

So what can parents do, short of pulling the plug on the modem?

Some of the groups that argued against the CDA pointed to filtering software as a better alternative to government regulation.

"Parents today, using these software controls, can effectively prevent their children from having access to any indecent speech," said Bruce J. Ennis, an attorney for the groups challenging the CDA during oral arguments before the Supreme Court in March.

I agree that almost anything other than sweeping legislation like the CDA -- which would have made criminals out of anyone E-mailing certain four-letter words -- is better.

But filtering software is not the end-all cure by any means.

There are several companies that make programs that limit access to objectionable material on the Internet. Generally, the companies that sell them compile lists of sites they deem should be off-limits to minors.

The problem is, these programscast wide nets and block access to some sites that have a particular political viewpoint. And some sites, which seem completely innocuous, are blocked as well.

One such filter program, CYBERsitter, blocks access to sites by the National Organization for Women and others about gay and lesbian rights, according toPeacefire, a student-run organization founded by Bennett Haselton, a Vanderbilt University student.

If you download a page that has the phrase "gay rights," for example, CYBERsitter will delete the phrase, according to the Peacefire Web site (http://www.peacefire.org).

Another program, Cyber Patrol, blocks access to newsgroups about atheism and feminism and to a collection of newsgroups related to journalism, according to Peacefire.

I was surprised to learn that even the Web site that hosts this column () was being blocked by SurfWatch, the most popular screening software, which is made by Spyglass Inc.

The content in this column and the Web site has always been G-rated, so I couldn't imagine why SurfWatch would think otherwise.

I called SurfWatch and spoke with Jay Friedland, a co-founder of SurfWatch, based in Los Altos, Calif.

I asked him first about blocking software screening out harmless and uncontroversial material.

He had obviously been asked this before. "The famous overblocking question," he said.

Friedland touted SurfWatch's sophisticated blocking algorithms that don't block sites indiscriminately that might contain the letters s-e-x, as some competing products do.

"That happens to be one of our competitors giving [blocking software] a bad name," he said.

"We have some very context-sensitive pattern-matching technology," he said. "We can block the word `boobs' but not block the word `breast cancer.'  "

Then I asked him about the SurfWatch block on the Cybertalk Web site.

After some quick checking, Friedland said my site was blocked in the "chat category" likely was because SurfWatch was been programmed to block out sites that contain the word "cybertalk." That word apparently is associated with a Web-based chat system elsewhere on the Internet.

SurfWatch gives parents the option of adding Web chat sites to its list of banned sites.

The SurfWatch Web site does allow anyone who finds their site mistakenly blocked to submit the address to be reviewed for un-blocking. Friedland said he would add the Cybertalk site to that list and said it should be unblocked within a day or two.

He acknowledged that some legitimate sites are mistakenly blocked and even pointed out that his company made headlines when its software inadvertantly blocked access to part of the White House Web site because it contained the word "couples."

That problem has long been fixed, but as the Cybertalk example shows, there are likely countless other Web sites being mistakenly blocked.

Friedland said it's a tough balance to keep a thorough list of sites that should be off-limits and, at the same time, make sure other sites aren't blocked in the process.

"We try and keep that balance and we're constantly adjusting it," he said. "We tend to err a little on the side of overblocking."

Others look to different ways of shielding kids from certain Web sites. Among them is a volunteer labeling system developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, based in Cambridge, Mass.

The system, called Platform for Internet Content Selection, or PICS, relies on Web page publishers to rate the content on their Web sites themselves (Read more about it at http://www.w3.org/pub/WWW/PICS/). Certain browsers can be programmed to read these labels and a parent can then restrict their child's access only to appropriate sites.

Will Web site publishers go along with a voluntary rating system?

"I believe they will," said Joe Hartley, a partner in brainiac Services, a Rhode Island Internet access provider, based in Hope Valley.

"Anyone wanting to put up a smut page will want people who are so inclined to find the page," he wrote in an E-mail message.

"Anyone specifically looking for X-rated pages wouldn't go to a site without that rating, making it worthless to lie about it. If anything, I think you'd run into people listing relatively tame sites with an X in order to increase traffic."

The decision

The transcript of the Supreme Court's decision is available on the ACLU's Web site at http://www.aclu.org/court/renovacludec.html

As a side note, the full text of the justice's decision was available via the Internet minutes after it was announced in Washington, D.C. on June 26.

Jonah Seiger, communications director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said he uploaded the decision to the Web using a wireless modem and a laptop computer from the steps of the Supreme Court. It was posted immediately on the Web page of the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition at about 10:15 a.m. That was about the same time that the wire services began to report the news.

Computer calendar

Thursday -- The Rhode Island Macintosh Users Group will hold its annual Mac Tips and Tricks meeting at 7:30 p.m. at the Davies Career and Technical High School in Lincoln. For more information, contact Juan Marsical at 253-7702, by e-mail at juanm@brainiac.com, or see the group's Web site at http://www.saturn.net/rimug/.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.