Web filtering software even snitches on Sneetches

Not even Dr. Seuss passed muster with a 'family-friendly' search engine designed to filter unseemly Web sites from the view of children, according to a report released this week just before the start of a White House-backed summit called to discuss children's access to the Internet. The non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) released its report after using the Net Shepherd Family Search engine, which filters Internet sites based on ratings supplied with the help of 1500 people worldwide who review content. The search engine displays only URLs of sites deemed appropriate for children by the content reviewers.

Not even Dr. Seuss passed muster with a "family-friendly" search engine designed to filter unseemly Web sites from the view of children, according to a report released this week just before the start of a White House-backed summit called to discuss children's access to the Internet.

The non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) released its report after using the Net Shepherd Family Search engine, which filters Internet sites based on ratings supplied with the help of 1500 people worldwide who review content. The search engine displays only URLs of sites deemed appropriate for children by the content reviewers.

The EPIC report was released just before the start of the Internet Online Summit: Focus on Children in Washington, D.C., as a way to show that filtering mechanisms popular among some government and industry leaders are not the best means of monitoring and controlling access for youngsters.

EPIC found that seemingly innocuous sites, including 2,630 that pop up in an AltaVista search related to Dr. Seuss, were deemed inappropriate for children and not listed as among the eight acceptable locations by Net Shepherd.

"And one of the eight documents that was produced by the search engine turned out to be a parody of a Dr. Seuss story using details from the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson," according to the EPIC report.

EPIC is a member of the IFEA, which was announced last week and is a coalition of 15 groups, also including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. The IFEA held a press conference a few hours before the Internet Online Summit: Focus on Children officially got under way in Washington, D.C. IFEA coalition members have been presenting what they view as the other side of Internet access issues.

Various of the IFEA groups have expressed concerns about the possible outcome of the summit, which includes government and industry leaders and is expected to lead to private business options for controlling childrens' access to objectionable Internet sites. Various filtering tools and parental controls pegged to the summit already have been announced by software vendors and Internet Service Providers.

IFEA members have argued that definitions of "objectionable" vary and that filtering tools may not be the best approach. The report released today by EPIC is meant to underscore that point.

Using Net Shepherd, an Internet search function whose technology was co-developed with AltaVista, EPIC found that the majority of Web sites that the AltaVista search engine lists for particular key words and phrases are not allowed through the Net Shepherd filtering system.

"Consider, for example, a young student who is writing a research paper on 'Thomas Edison,' one of the greatest inventors of all time," the EPIC report says. "If the student undertakes a search with AltaVista, 11,522 documents are returned. But if the student uses the Family Search site, only nine documents are produced. Similar results will be found with such search phrases as 'Betsy Ross', 'Islam', 'Emily Dickinson', and 'United States Supreme Court'."

Most sites about more sensitive topics such as teen pregnancy, puberty and eating disorders also are blocked by Net Shepherd, "but what was surprising to us is that the blocking of these sensitive matters was not any greater than with such topics as 'photosynthesis' ... 'astronomy' ... or 'Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart'," the report said. "In other words, it is just as difficult to get information about the 'Constitution of the United States' -- actually, somewhat more so -- as it is to get information about 'puberty' using a family-friendly search engine."

An official at Net Shepherd, based in Calgary, Alberta, said that the search engine is new and not perfect.

"I don't apologise for the fact that we just got going," said Ron Warris, vice president of technology, who invited the critics to help join in to more effectively review sites.

"One thing we try to make clear is that we don't use technology to do this, we use people," said Ron Warris, Net Shepherd vice president of technology. The community of 1,500 people helping to review sites has doubled in the past six weeks and anyone who wants to is free to join in, he said.

Thus far, Net Shepherd has focused on reviewing sites that are topical or related to current events and there is no way to keep up with the pace of new Web sites, Warris said.

He had just had a chance to quickly skim the EPIC report, but noted several inaccuracies in using a direct comparison of sites Net Shepherd returned in a keyword search compared to the number returned by AltaVista, which helped develop Net Shepherd.

"Say for example you entered in the word 'sex,' (AltaVista) will say there are 1.3 million documents, but it is in effect already doing some of the filtering anyhow because it will only give you the most relevant 200 sites," Warris said, adding that Net Shepherd in turn only filters those 200 sites and not all of the other possible hits found by AltaVista.

In the past several days, various companies have announced filtering software and Internet Service Providers also have said they will provide stronger controls for parents that are easier to use. The summit is expected to result in more such tools and controls.

But Warris said that filtering tools and parental controls are different from what Net Shepherd, which is a search engine, is doing and so it is not fair to lump all such options together, as EPIC seems to have done in its report.

The summit is one consequence of the US Supreme Court ruling last June that the Communications Decency Act, which would have put new limits on Internet content, was unconstitutional because it violated free-speech rights. President Bill Clinton said then that he wanted private industry to figure out ways to deal with access issues regarding minors.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully challenged the act all the way to the Supreme Court, has said it is "genuinely alarmed" at the reactionary tone discussions on Internet censoship have taken since the CDA was overturned.

"It was not any one proposal or announcement that caused our alarm; rather, it was the failure to examine the longer-term implications for the Internet of rating and blocking schemes," the ACLU said in a report about rating and blocking proposals.

The IFEA was formed in part to try to get software and computer makers to consider all of the issues before pushing filtering devices simply because the government is behind those kinds of industry controls, according to officials.

IFEA does not yet have an Internet address or contact information. Net Shepherd Family Search, based in Calgary, can be reached at http://family.netshepherd.com/. EPIC in Washington, D.C., can be reached at http://www.epic.org/.

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