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Complaints Mount About Internet Filter Blocking

Computers: Software is meant to curb Web site access. Some believe practice is becoming censorship.

March 18, 1997|MICHELLE SLATALLA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The World Wide Web seemed an ideal, low-cost place to publish "The Ethical Spectacle," Jonathan Wallace's newsletter about politics, law and ethics. In fact, since the New York City lawyer began distributing the free publication online more than two years ago, circulation has grown to more than 30,000 readers.

But a few weeks ago, Wallace got troubling e-mail from an acquaintance. "It said, 'Do you know your pages are being blocked by a software filter?' What it meant was that anyone who had installed the filter couldn't see my pages," said Wallace. "It was censorship."

The restriction against Wallace's Web site was quickly lifted after he complained to Microsystems Software Inc., which owns the CyberPatrol filter. But the incident illustrates what critics say is a growing problem with software filters, which are installed on personal computers to block access to certain World Wide Web sites.

Intended as a way for parents to keep their children away from Web pages that are sexually explicit or racist or otherwise inappropriate, filters were being hailed only a year ago as a palatable alternative to the Communications Decency Act--the controversial federal law that would sharply curtail so-called indecent communications on the Internet.

But now, as the Supreme Court prepares to decide whether the act is constitutional, many "netizens" and civil libertarians are having second thoughts about filters, with some even labeling them "censorware."

Much of the concern lies in the fact that filters have begun to move from private homes into the public arena. Libraries in Boston, Austin, Texas, Florida and Long Island, N.Y., have purchased filters for computer terminals that are used by adults and children alike--raising questions about appropriate use and the idiosyncratic criteria the programs use in deciding which sites to block.

As Wallace's case illustrates, moreover, the filters are subject to clumsy mistakes: His site was blocked because it referred to a recent book he wrote, titled "Sex, Laws and Cyberspace," and the CyberPatrol software concluded that he was displaying a "sexual text."

"People have forgotten that filters are supposed to be a personal alternative that you install in your own home, and so the technology is now being installed in places where it shouldn't," said Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Assn. "Unfortunately, libraries are under incredible pressure to do something to 'protect the children.' "

Added Ann Beeson, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union: "While we still think that private use of blocking technology by parents is a much better alternative to government censorship, mandatory use of these filters by government institutions does pose serious 1st Amendment problems."

More Filter Use Is Seen

Internet watchers agree the use of filters--as well as an emerging system for rating the content of Web pages--is likely to expand rapidly, especially if the Supreme Court strikes down the decency act.

Internet access providers are increasingly coupling filters with their own products, with companies like BellSouth, Hong Kong's HKNet and Microsoft now offering SurfWatch as an option.

"What we provide is a choice," said Paul Balle, a product manager on Microsoft's Internet Explorer team. "We give users a choice as to whether they want to screen some of the content they want to view."

Manufacturers of the most popular filters--with names like CyberPatrol, SurfWatch, CyberSitter, X-Stop and NetNanny--say people simply expect too much from a new technology. In most cases fewer than 2 years old, the filter products, now used by several hundred thousand customers around the world, are evolving as rapidly as the Internet itself.

Little Choice in Early Versions

The earliest versions of filters, first marketed in 1995, gave customers little choice in customizing the products.

"It was totally subjective as to what we thought should be filtered," said Sami Bray, a SurfWatch product marketer. "But recent versions are more interactive, allowing people to customize the filter, and people feel better about that."

Susan Getgood, CyberPatrol's director of marketing, said her company moved quickly to unblock Wallace's "Ethical Spectacle" site because the company has a policy: "If people find something that they think shouldn't be restricted, we review it. And if we agree, we take it off the list."

Although each filter has its own quirks, in general the programs work by automatically scanning the text of a particular site and searching for groups of words that would be associated with inappropriate topics.

Automatic scanning is supplemented by suggestions from employee Websurfers and customers.

Each filter company creates its own criteria for "inappropriate." For instance, while all the filters block sites that have explicitly sexual content, only CyberSitter blocks sites that deal with gay or lesbian issues.

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