This question has generated the greatest debate, as one can see from
scanning the articles in Appendix 14: librarian vs. librarian; government
official vs. government official; citizen vs. citizen. Because of this,
we made every effort to understand the current state of filtering software.
As one also notices in Appendix 14, filtering software is in its infancy.
SafeSurf was the first product and it is just about three years old. With
other names like "NetNanny," "CyberSitter,"
"Surfwatch," and "X-Stop,"
these products have marketed themselves as convenient ways to keep pornography,
pedophiles, and other objectionables away from children. Such products
also depict themselves as anti-censorship, and, in general they do not
think of themselves as censorship products.
Common descriptions of these products include:
- "NetNanny's screening lists are completely user defined...according
to their particular values-not a developer's arbitrary selection or
the Government's!" (NetNanny)
- "CyberPatrol provides parents, teachers, day care professionals-anyone
who is responsible for children's access to the Internet-with the tools
they will need to get a handle on an area which can be very dangerous
for kids." (CyberPatrol)
- "SurfWatch Internet filtering products help you with the flood of
inappropriate material on the Internet. An alternative to government
censorship, SurfWatch provides a technical solution to the difficult
issues created by the explosion of technology." (SurfWatch)
The earlier blocking and filtering software fell (and some continue
to fall) loosely into two groups: (a) services that blocked sites containing
a word or words considered obscene or evidencing sexually explicit or
otherwise objectionable content, and (b) services that had persons exploring
and blocking sites individually. Although the former allows users to access
far more sites than the latter (as it does not maintain a list of sites,
but searches all sites for the "improper" words and word strings), it
rarely works very well. In one popular system, all sites containing the
word "breast" were blocked, including those dealing with breast cancer
(this has since been corrected). In a more recent experiment with SurfWatch,
often reputed to be one of the best blocking software, one was able to
view graphically-explicit sexual fetish sites, while a New York Times
article on Internet gambling was blocked. Both blocking errors are presumably
the result of word or word-string searches.
The second type employs actual persons to sort and review sites, but
can only get to a fraction of the sites on the Web. Some services, such
as the aforementioned SurfWatch and KinderGuard, employ persons to review
and block web sites individually (b), using words and word-strings to
filter sites they have not reviewed (a). This combination of the two original
blocking methods appears to be superior to either method alone. It does
not resolve the problems with the two methods; it merely reduces the likelihood
of access to objectionable sites while maintaining something of the boundlessness
of the Internet. Many blocking software producers are willing to acknowledge
this much. Jay Friendland, co founder of SurfWatch, admits, "It's part
of a solution. It's not the complete solution."
All the companies we interviewed either have or will soon have the following
capabilities: 1.) blocking software with filters as determined by the
company; 2.) different levels of blocking, customizable by the user or
the network administrator; individual sites can be blocked or unblocked;
3.) software that comes with no sites blocked and network administrators
can block sites as they wish; 4.) the availability of third-party filters
(so, for example, the ALA or KIDS could develop their own filter files.)
We have included in Appendix 14 the selection criteria we could find
for each of the company's filter files. As far as we could tell, all companies
use some version of a computer program or an intelligent agent or a "bot"
to surf the Web looking for sites that meet specific search criteria we
could not discover because they are considered "trade secrets" in a highly
competitive industry. For instance, some companies identify the major
adult service providers and block the server addresses these companies
use (raising the question of whether other, perhaps legitimate users of
that server are also blocked); others block all sites that require you
to say you are 18 years of age or older; others use pattern matching (certain
word phrases) to determine the sites. Even companies that do have some
employees checking the sites rely in large part on their computer programs
to filter and block the sites. All are doing their best to meet their
customers' needs, blocking and unblocking sites as they find out about
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of
these programs is to show you some pages from our test of X-Stop's "librarian
shadow." X-Stop says it has figured out how to block "illegal pornography"
on the Web using the Miller test and an intelligent agent.
Consider the six tests which follow. Test 1 tried to access typical
sexually-explicit sites. All sites were blocked. Test 2 attempted to access
sites dealing with sex education. All sites were able to be accessed.
Test 3 sought to access sites dealing with safe sex information. Here
there was a mixed response. Notice, for instance, Test 4. Here we were
able to access the site for "I might be a lesbian, what do I do?" and
got the information on the following pages. In Test 5, we clicked on "I
might be gay, what do I do?" and were blocked. The next page is the message
sent when a site is blocked. The pages that follow Test 5 were accessed
from a different browser and show the information and resource list which
was blocked. Test 6 shows a safe sex site that was not blocked, but which
contained an animation of a nude man putting a condom on his erect penis.
WARNING: this page might be offensive to some.
Certainly, one should not make much of this test. We include it only
for instructive purposes for those who have not tested filtering software
themselves. As Robert Harrington puts it: "Putting aside the polemics
and lawyer-talk, this debate comes down to these issues: those who favor
restrictions face an increased danger of having their children exposed
to pornography; opponents of restrictions face loss of some non-pornographic
material blocked by mistake. Thus we have protection from pornography
for minors on the one hand versus loss of some marginal information on
the other." The readers of this report will need to judge whether this
is an example of marginal information or not.
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