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Fast Forward: Software to Block the Hardcore [The Washington Post]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Fast Forward / The Washington Post
Kids and Computers: Porn-Free
April 25, 1997

LAST WEEKEND, MY HUSBAND AND I set out to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies a few weekends ago. But when I opened the package of brown sugar, I found it hard as a quarry.

I’d once read about a quick way to soften brown sugar, but couldn’t remember how. So I logged onto the Internet and fed the words “brown sugar” into a search engine. I found a lot more than I bargained for—and depending on your disposition, much of it wasn’t sweet.

Yahoo! Suggested: “Brown Sugar Shack—instant access to XXX sex images of nude adult black and brown females;” and “Sexy Brown Sugar—erotic and hardcore pictures of beautiful black women.”

I clicked on both links (so sue me). On my screen were vivid photos of naked women posed on stacks of pillows. OK, there were dots over their private parts, and a warning did pop up stating that anyone under 18 should click no further. But please. It didn’t ask for my driver’s license.

Experiences like mine explain why many parents are looking for software that can filter inappropriate content from the Internet’s wealth of information. In researching available content filtering products, I found a lot of confusing talk about competing standards and different technological mechanisms for screening, tagging and monitoring content. Based on ads, boxes and reviews, I didn’t have a clue.

I turned to in expert for advice.

“I don’t like one more than the other,” says Esther Dyson, a leading industry analyst, president of New York-based EDventure Holdings Inc. In her newsletter “Release 1.0,” she notes a recent report on software content filters. ‘They all offer different benefits. I agree with what some programs filter out, disagree with others. That means the system is working. There’s something for everyone.”

INDEED, THE FIEID IS RIFE with controversy, with different parents looking to screen out different staff, and most companies trying to reassign or, at least, widely dis-
tribute responsibility for making specific blocking decisions. But Dyson says even the most rigorous and fairly designed tools can be dangerous if they convince parents that they don’t have to monitor their kids’ Internet use.

“No matter how good the filtering device, they all can be dangerous to the extent that parents feel so safe they stop talking to their children [about what they find on the Internet]. These programs don’t block everything, and the truth is that no matter how good, software technology can’t solve the problem of smut on the Net. People are imperfect, and therefore the Internet is imperfect.”

To test that theory, I installed copies of four leading programs-SurfWatch, Cyber Patrol, CybeSitter and Net Nanny—and went trolling.

My hit list: the two salacious “brown sugar” sites; Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler. For variety, I added a strange but largely harmless Web page devoted to naked sky diving, sites devoted to sex and relationships (some explicit, some not) and AIDS (again, some sexually explicit and some medical). Then I threw in a few innocent search terms that could unintentionally generate unwanted material: Dick Van Dyke, Leave It to Beaver, missile, and chick.

The results: Most programs blocked undesirable sites pretty well, but none was perfect. All of them blocked the skin magazines. Most let some raunch by in response to the Van Dyke queries. But of all the programs, SurfWatch seemed to allow the most nasty stuff—letting in some objectionable material described with the brown sugar, naked sky diving, and some rather explicit gay, lesbian and AIDS sites.

The good news is that when we told executive VP Friedland that SurfWatch let us taste “sexy brown sugar the site was added to the blocked list.

Cyber Patrol gave us brown sugar, too, and also blocked AIDS sites rather aggressively, including the Harvard AIDS Review.

Cybersitter blocked the National Organization for Women. (“There is too much information about lesbians at this site,” defends Mark Kanter, vice president of Cybersitter and publisher of Solid Oak Software. “Our customers want us to block sites such as NOW.”)

But it permits access to other feminist and lesbian sites and liberal AIDS information. It was also tricked by Dick Van Dyke. Net Nanny was my favorite, robustly screening smut without blocking merely political or gender-related material. It’s also fully customizable. But unless configured properly, it won’t just block access to the site you just clicked on, it’ll log you off the Internet completely—and keep you out until you type in the correct password.

Obviously, these programs raise questions about personal values and—when used in schools, libraries and companies—political issues, too. But parents who want some technological help in managing their kids Internet experience should install at least one of the programs available.


More Fast Forward / Washington Post Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.