Internet Filter Plan Hits Snag

Monday, October 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Internet-filtering software pushed by Congress to protect children from smut online is blocking far more than pornography. It accidentally screens out innocent content like a Virginia lawyer's home page and a Texas home inspector's Web site.

The software's uneven performance puts a snag in the politically attractive solution that Congress is trying to include in an education spending bill before it adjourns.

The measure's supporters admit the tools aren't perfect and want communities also to study other ways to combat child pornography on the World Wide Web.

``We need to make sure we're looking at the whole issue and everything that's out there. Filters won't be a cure-all,'' said Melissa Sabatine, a spokeswoman for Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., co-sponsor of the legislation.

The White House and civil liberties groups worried about free-speech implications of filtering oppose the measure, as does, ironically, the maker of the most popular Internet filter. The bill's specific language impedes innovation, the company called SurfCONTROL contends.

``Things that mandate specific technologies probably aren't the best solution here. Let the free market decide, and let us improve these products all the time,'' said Susan Getgood, a SurfCONTROL vice president.

SurfCONTROL owns the two most-used filtering tools, CyberPatrol and SurfWatch. Its technology also powers America Online's Web filter.

``My chief criticism is that I don't think it's necessary because schools are already doing what they need to do to protect their students,'' Getgood said.

More than 9 million home users and 17,000 schools and school districts use SurfCONTROL's products.

Peacefire, an anti-filtering group, set up the most popular Internet filters to scan through the 1,000 active ''.com'' addresses. The study found error rates in the filters, reflecting how many sites were blocked that should not have been, of 34 percent to 82 percent.

Just filtering for sexual content, CyberPatrol blocked out four obviously nonpornographic sites for each porn site it found. SurfWatch had a similar error rate.

The blocked sites, including those owned by a lawyer and a home inspection company, had no obvious triggers such as racy language, pictures or double-entendres. Getgood could not explain each specific error, but suggested that some of the Web addresses might have been previously owned by pornographers.

Getgood said no filter is perfect, but all the sites CyberPatrol blocks are reviewed by the company's employees.

``No one has ever claimed that these things will be 100 percent foolproof,'' Getgood said, adding that the company still is improving the product. ``We've all gotten better. Your critics can be your best friends.''

Bennett Haselton, head of Peacefire, said the filtering mistakes bring up serious free-speech issues.

``When even one book is taken out of a library, people get outraged over it. This is a case of hundreds of thousands of Web sites being eliminated,'' Haselton said. ``People don't know about it, because blocking software companies don't tell customers what they block.''


The spending bill is H.R. 4577.

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