From the October, 1998 PC ALAMODE Magazine:
Can we keep kids safe on the ‘Net?
 
by Susan Ives

Over the next few months Congress will debate whether to require schools and libraries that receive federal funds for Internet connections to install filtering software to block material inappropriate for children. The White House supports this approach. A year ago they announced a two-part strategy that will " figure out how to lock off the bad stuff and figure out how to direct parents and children to the good stuff that's on the Internet. "

 Does this stuff work? Is it a good idea? Will it serve to "dumb-down" the Internet to the level of a ten-year-old and limit choices for adults? Learn the facts and decide for yourself.

 Blocking and filtering software works either by blocking sites or by filtering key words.

 There are two ways to block sites. PICS, the Platform for Internet Content Selection, requires web site developers to self-rate their sites, typically for inappropriate language, sex, nudity and violence. Codes indicating the rating levels are entered in meta tags in the web site. When an Internet connection has site blocking software enabled, it will not permit children to jump the fence unless they have a password to bypass the blockage. The advantage to this system is that there can be an infinite number of organizations that implement their own rating systems. You, as the end user, decide which trusted organizations will set up criteria for you and your family and install their criteria on your system. You could elect to run several rating systems, or none. You are in control. The disadvantage is that web designers must include a meta tag for each rating system in their web sites. If the tag is missing, the site is blocked. The Alamo PC site, for example, has not been rated. A child whose family used PICS-based rating software would not be able to access the Alamo PC site, even though it contains no offensive material.

 The newest versions of the top two Internet Web browsers have built-in PICS-based software that parents can activate to protect their kids from beastly sites on the Internet. Internet Explorer 3.0 and 4.0 default to the RSACi (Recreational Software Advisory Council) rating system. To activate the content advisor, go to the View menu, and select the Options item. Click on the Security tab, and then click on Enable ratings. You will then be prompted for a password. This password will be used to lock the settings - you must have this password to be able to turn ratings on or off, and to set the levels of restriction. More information on the RSACI system is at www.rsac.org. Netscape Communicator 4.5, which was still in beta testing as I was writing this article, will incorporate SafeSurf ratings. More information about this system is available from www.safesurf.com.

 The other blocking method rely on either software or Internet-based databases (often provided by an Internet Service Provider) to compile lists of offensive sites, or sections of sites, and block them by name. These lists are typically updated at least monthly, and parents can add sites of their own to the blocked list. The advantage to this system is that is does not depend on thousands of independent web designers to add special coding to their pages. Unlike the PICS system, the stand-alone software also has the ability to block other types of Internet protocols, such as newsgroups, e-mail and chat rooms. The disadvantage is that in using this type of software we turn over our value judgements to software corporations. A prominent site from the Christian right, for example, was blocked because its militant stance against alternative lifestyles was classified as "hate speech." Examples of programs that fall into this category are NetNanny, CyberSitter and CyberPatrol. 

Filtering works on key words rather than general site content. This method has had uneven results. A cooking site, for example, could be excluded because a recipe contains chicken breasts and whipped cream, with both breast and whip being counted as proscribed words. One reporter related that in his experiment the word "homosexual" was blocked, but "queer" was not, filtering out some objective educational sites while letting the raunchy stuff slip through. Filters can either be software-based, or provided by an ISP.

 I have mixed feelings about these tools. A Family PC survey found that 22% of families with kids use blocking software that's built into their browser or provided by ISPs such as AOL. Only 4% have bought and installed separate screening software on their computers. If I had kids, I would probably use blocking and filtering software at home. If Junior complained that he was prevented from visiting a site that he needed for his term paper I could be on hand with the password to review the questionable pages and make up my own mind. I would be free to disable the controls when I was on the ‘Net myself. And I'm smart enough to know that no box full of bits and bytes can substitute for parental guidance and supervision. I have qualms about using these tools in school settings, where kids from 7-17 are apt to get lumped into the same category, and teachers and librarians are stripped of the authority to bypass federally-mandated controls. I think they could be dangerous in public libraries, where adults could end up living with the same restrictions we impose of elementary school children. The American Library Association agrees with me on this. Their Library Bill of Rights states that filters should not be used ''to block access to constitutionally protected speech.''

 It's a difficult call. Parents concerned about Internet content should visit www.netparents.org to get some tips on how to protect their children from inappropriate material. Citizens with a more general interest in the debate can keep tabs through a special Yahoo news section, at http://headlines.yahoo.com/Full_Coverage/Tech/Internet_Decency_Debate/ Susan Ives teaches Internet classes for Alamo PC.